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Literature Through Lens: Henri Cartier-Bresson Collection


"Of all forms of art expression, photography is the only one which seizes the instant in its flight.  We look for the evanescent, the irreplaceable; this is our constant concern, and therefore one of the characteristics of our craft...In what we see and reveal to others we are witnesses of the world around it."

-- Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson is one of those rare breed of men who transcend time and territory through their work.  Born in Chanteloup in France in 1908, destiny took photographer Cartier-Bresson around the globe and he was present more by chance than by design in "happening" places.  He made six long journeys to India and each time, he captured her in her many moods and agonizing moments.

Some of the photographs on India are in the archives of IGNCA.  This collection of 107 prints came to the Centre in 1990 at a cost of 1.10 lakh French Francs (roughly Rs. 2.82 lakh at the value then).  These include some rare shots not exhibited much.  IGNCA held an exhibition of these prints in November 1992.

The photographs in the collection have been shot over a period of 33 years since 1947.  There are shots of refugees of partition of the subcontinent in trains, camps, the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, the moment of Pandit Nehru announcing Bapu's death and the funeral procession.  In 1950, Bresson took some photographs of Ramana Maharishi, then in his last days, suffering as he was fromgalloping cancer.  During this period there are more shots of the south.  In the 60's series, there are photographs of 1966, of the Republic Day Parade, scenes from Udaipur, Ahmedabad and the Allahabad Kumbh.  There is this photograph of India's first rocket head being carried on a cycle pillion.  Into the 80's Bresson has headed east in India.

Cartier-Bresson used a battered little Leica, the chrome taped black to make it less conspicuous.  For most of his pictures he uses the normal 50 mm lens to excellent advantage.  Cartier-Bresson had an unmistakable instinct for unposed photographs.  He never altered the scene of his shots.  Not even to lift the blind to change the light.  He once said "the fisherman never stirs up the water before he starts to fish."

One of Cartier-Bresson's most curious characteristic is his thirst for physical anonymity.  He did not want to be recognized and went to extreme extents to hide his real identity.  There was an interesting episode published in  a newspaper that Cartier-Bresson hesitantly agreed for a TV interview.  And the large interested audience saw only his backi throughout the interview.

Of the collection of 107 photo prints with IGNCA, 50 are of the size 50 x 60cm and the rest are 30 x 40cm.  Cartier-Bresson did not "make" the pictures in the dark room.  He did not allow his photographs to be cropped in the dark room.  "The photograph is good or not from the moment it was caught in the camera" he would say.  In the IGNCA Collection, there are 15 photographs on Mahatma Gandhi's assassination and funeral.  Some of the last shots of Ramana Maharshi, are part of the collection.  Cartier-Bresson was a personal friend of Vallathol, the founder of `Kalamandalam.' He stayed with Vallathol and his camera has caught several aspects of Kathakali.  The collection has seven.

There are several photographs of ordinary street scene, and yet no ordinary a view.  IGNCA had hosted an exhibition of the India photographs of Cartier-Bresson.

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