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Henri Cartier-Bresson !!! If you have a little interest in Photography or fine Art, you must have heard this name many times before.
If you are into photography, you have come across the famous photographic phrase ‘Decisive moment’ at some point.
(Cartier-Bresson redefined these words in photographic parlance and in 1952, he wrote a book in the same name, which is considered to be the bible to the photographers).
If you have soaked yourself in the stream of photography and especially, in any kind of ‘human photography’ that includes street, photojournalism, and fine art, etc., you perhaps respect him as the greatest teacher in your life!
The stature of Bresson is so huge that he does not only claim respect but he is to be worshipped indeed as the god of artistry by the photo-artists.
I got awestruck when I came to know that Nilanjan Ray (our own Nilanjan Da, as I call him Dada like any other Bengali, to pay respect to seniors), a Kolkata based documentary and street photographer, got a letter from none other than the great master Cartier-Bresson, that too labeling his photographs to be ‘excellent’.
I had a chance to talk to Nilanjan Ray on this enthralling story, which I shall tell you in after some time. Before that let us briefly peep into the life of Bresson.
Who is Henri Cartier-Bresson
Just for records and who does not know much about the great master of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, I will write a few words about him.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born into a wealthy family in France on August 22, 1908. Educated in Paris, Bresson developed an early love for literature and the arts. From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson studied art, particularly with Surrealism.
After pursuing his strong fascination with painting early on, in 1932 he purchased his first 35mm Leica – his camera of choice, and with this, he developed a life-long passion for photography, that went on to change the street photography landscape.
In his own version, “Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera. Manufactured or staged photography does not concern me.
For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity”. Thus, a theory was gradually evolved and he would prepare an outline of the basic principles and practices to be followed in photography by millions of his disciples in the next many generations to come.
Roaming around the streets, Cartier-Bresson would photograph moments that most eyes would surpass for everyday life, but to him, these were the true moments of human existence.
With his newfound interest, he began traveling the world. Africa, Eastern Europe, and Mexico were the places where he traveled extensively.
He is considered to be one of the twentieth centuries’ most traveled photographers.
The majority of his work was commissioned and sent to magazines for publication, but Cartier-Bresson was dedicated to the art of photography and was also exhibited in several galleries, the first being the Julian Levy Gallery in New York In 1933.
Before the Second World War, he worked on films with Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, and Andre Svoboda. He also worked on documentary films in Spain.
With the onset of war, Cartier-Bresson entered the French military as a photographer. He covered many major events happening around the world.
He was there for the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese revolution. He documented George VI’s coronation and told the story of Khrushchev’s Russia.
He traveled twice in India too, in 1948 and in 1980. During his first visit, he covered an all-time important event of India’s modern history- Mahatma Gandhi‘s assassination at Delhi on 30th January 1948.
He also documented Gandhi’s activity at Birla House a day before his assassination. Cartier-Bresson’s subsequent work to document Gandhi’s death and its immediate impact on the country became one of Life Magazine’s most prized photo essays.
Check more than 6000 fascinating photographs captured by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Magnum Photos & ‘The Decisive Moment’
Cartier-Bresson had remained true to the surrealist thought until 1947, then influenced by Robert Capa (an all-time great war-photographer from Hungary), Cartier-Bresson changed his overall vision and approach to photojournalism.
Photojournalism, at its peak during the early-to-mid 1900s, posed problems of its own. The demand by magazines for photographers to record the events and people of the world grew tremendously at the turn of the century. It became big business, and with big business came complications for photographers.
Most magazines, either through commissions or freelance, required the photographer to give up the rights to their images submitted.
To overcome this unfairness, Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos in 1947, with Robert Capa, George Rodger, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, and William Vandivert.
Magnum is the largest, most prestigious, and arguably the best photography-cooperative in the world owned by the galaxy of star member-photographers globally.
Magnum Photos has visually documented most of the world’s major events and personalities since the 1930s covering society, politics, events, and conflict.
In 1952 Cartier-Bresson published his first book, The Decisive Moment, a rich collection of his work spanning two decades was published.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”
The 2nd innings
From 1968, he began to curtail his photographic activities, preferring to concentrate on drawing and painting. In 2003, with his wife and daughter, he created the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris for the preservation of his work.
Cartier-Bresson received an extraordinary number of prizes, awards, and honorary doctorates for his works. He died at his home in Provence on 3 August 2004, a few weeks short of his 96th birthday.
Now, I shall introduce you to Nilanjan Ray. Born in Kolkata, India in 1959, on a lighter note, Nilanjan says,
“I have a handful of exposed stock on “HUMAN INTEREST” and I keep stock of other people’s money in a bank, as by profession I am a banker”,
Although he attended some workshops and classes at the different Institutes, Nilanjan considers himself as a self-taught photographer.
Right from childhood, he was always fascinated by life on the streets and the complicated activities it has to offer.
This probably worked as a spark and that drove him to take up his first long-term personal photographic project – “photographing in Varanasi- An Eternal City” and subsequently, “Faith – A quaint Emotions”.
Over the years, he produced long and detailed photographic projects in various subjects in West Bengal as well as in India.
Kolkata knows Nilanjan Ray as a passionate photographer; is he attached to any photographic organization? During an informal conversation with me, Nilanjan said, “I am the life member of the oldest Photographic club in Kolkata, Photographic Association of Bengal”.
He participated in sixteen photographic exhibitions so far, including his solo exhibitions in India and abroad (including Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Australia, New Zealand, etc) which itself proves his acumen on photographic excellence!
He was also not deprived of the recognition for his hard work. He received so many accolades from India and abroad; his work published in national and international magazines; he also worked for a documentary on Rabindra Sangeet genius Subinay Ray.
But all recognitions, awards, honors take a back seat when it comes to receiving the personal letter from none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson in his own handwriting. I am going to describe this to you all now!
My personal impression on Cartier-Bresson
I personally just heard the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson much before I came into serious photography, I read an article on Satyajit Ray in one of the periodicals in the late 90s, where the film-maestro mentioned that he was greatly inspired by the photographs taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and what more, he instructed his cameraperson, Subrata Mitra to replicate the same tone that Cartier-Bresson used in his images, in his debut film Pather Panchali.
He (Ray) also advised Mitra to arrange for such lightings that the entire film would have a “Bresson-like” effect throughout.
However, it was much later that I experienced the joy of watching Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from the well-acclaimed book ‘The decisive Moment’ which one of my friends showed me from his relative’s collections.
It will be an understatement if I say that it was a jaw-dropping experience for me. I was totally mesmerized with the aesthetics and approach towards his artistry like millions of my predecessors and for sure his creations will also captivate millions of my successors in the many more generations to come.
After that, I saw thousands of his photographs, watched Youtube videos, and attended seminars analyzing his mesmerizing photographs many a time.
Till that time, to me, the impression of Henri Cartier-Bresson was such that as if he was an illusionist with out-of-the-worldly capabilities and with some kind of ‘divine touch’ in his right index finger with which he used to click the shutter.
I came to reality from my dream when Nilanjan Da showed me the letter he received from the master and I realized that HCB was also a normal human being made of flesh and blood, who can even write letters to our very own Nilanjan Ray.
The generosity of Cartier-Bresson
I asked Nilanjan Da to tell me the inner stories behind it and I am writing in this in his own version for better clarity.
“ I was preparing myself for an exhibition on “Varanasi- An eternal city” organized by NATIONAL CENTRE FOR PERFORMING ARTS, (NCPA), Mumbai. This was in the year 2002. NPCA invited me for the exhibition and I was supposed to exhibit my images taken at Varanasi in the past few years.
“I got all my images printed by the then eminent photo- printer Mr. Bikash Bose. Bose, incidentally, used to print images for stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Nemai Ghosh, and Sunil Dutt, etc.
“Needless to mention that all the Prints were in Monochrome and for reference, Mr. Bikash Bose was the master of Monochrome Prints. I got around 100 images printed for the exhibition.
“I was a little perplexed over the selection of photos to be displayed in the exhibition. Possibly, at that time while talking to Jyotish Da (of Image Studio) I got the address of Henri Cartier-Bresson and decided to send specially printed 70 photos to him (in 6×8 size) with this hope that if he could help me with the selection process.
“See the level of my aspiration! I was really skeptical of receiving Bresson’s reply, as I knew that he was a superstar and possibly the brightest star of the photographic galaxy.
“He was a busy person too. Even then, I wanted to take a chance and wanted to try my luck without any expectations.
“After a reasonable time, I got a thick envelope from Paris. To my utter surprise, I found that none other than Cartier-Bresson had sent that to me.
“My joy knew no bound when I found that he sent one copy of his latest book “Pen, Brush & Camera” along with two other small envelopes.
“One envelope contained 40 photographs, mentioning, “These are my Favourite Photographs” written on top of the envelope. I could not believe my eyes when I read,
‘For Nilanjan Ray, many thanks for your letter and excellent photographs’.
Cartier-Bresson also mentioned that they had a separate team for selection or screening of photos; in the future, I might send my images to them, if I wish. I exhibited those 40 photographs that were approved by HCB. It was an exceptional feeling for me ”
‘This was a great honor for you Nilanjan Da, very seldom photographers can expect such recognitions from the great master”.
“On the contrary”, Nilanjan Da smiled and said, “I sent so many letters to Indian star photographers but I did not get a single reply from them”.
“It was a wonderful discussion. I thank you Nilanjan Da from team ‘We the World Magazine’ for sparing your time and sharing the photographs liked by Henri Cartier-Bresson”
We The World Magazine obtained permission for featuring the images.