My Afternoon Tea with Henri Cartier-Bresson

No pantheon of the greats in the history of photography would be complete without the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Using his trademark Leica camera and unobtrusive 50mm lens, he produced some of the most iconic images in a career that spanned more than 60 years. Considered by some to be the father of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs captured ‘the decisive moment’ which he describes thus: ‘There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see the composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera….Once you miss it, it is gone forever.’

In the early 1970s I was the youngest member of an editorial team, working for the publishing company, Scholastic, in New York City. A very talented colleague, Sheila Turner-Seed, had recently completed a trail-blazing project, ‘Images of Man’, which featured celebrated photographers and their work, including that of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I’d carved out a niche for myself as a picture researcher so when Sheila moved abroad, Scholastic entrusted me to complete the admin on her project. This put me in contact with Cartier-Bresson who proved to be particularly courteous in the ensuing correspondence.

Three years later I moved to England where, clutching my precious work permit, I was able to get a job in picture research. Some months later I decided to make my first visit to Paris. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I wrote to Cartier-Bresson to tell him of my impending trip. He immediately responded by inviting me to have tea with him in his apartment in the Rue de Rivoli. I’d heard how much he valued his privacy so I felt very honoured to receive such an invitation from one of the most important living photographers.

I left my hotel in high spirits, allowing myself plenty of time to make the journey via the Metro and my map of Paris. Shortly after I rang the bell, Cartier-Bresson came out to greet me. He was a rather ordinary-looking man, conservatively dressed in trousers and a shirt and pullover. His features were even, his white hair thinning – but what I really noticed were his very bright blue eyes. ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ he said, ‘je suis enrhume – I am suffering from a very bad cold — so cannot keep our appointment. I did not know where you were staying or I’d have telephoned you to save you from coming all this way.’ My earlier excitement was replaced by huge disappointment. I muttered something about wishing him well and left.

A few years later I was doing some picture research at the John Hillelson Agency in London. John was the London agent for Magnum Photos – the famous photographers’ cooperative of which Cartier-Bresson was a founder member. John’s wife, Judy, was an American like me, so John was no doubt well-versed in many American idioms and idiosyncrasies, such as quirky nicknames. For instance, sons of fathers sharing the same name were often called Junior or Skip or Chip. Chuck was the recognised nickname for Charles as was Hank for Henry.

When I visited John’s agency on this particular occasion, there was another man in the small office. The two of them had obviously been chatting and looking at photos together. John, always a gentleman, introduced me to this other person. ‘Mari, this is Hank Carter,’ he said with a twinkle. ‘Hi,’ I said to the man who greeted me with a soft-spoken ‘Hello’. As we acknowledged each other, I was immediately drawn to his very bright blue eyes. It was truly a light bulb moment.

‘Hank Carter indeed!’ I said to John, who shrugged, a wry grin on his face. I then turned back to the ‘stranger’ and said, ‘We’ve met before, Monsieur Cartier-Bresson. It was several years ago when I came to your apartment in Paris. We were to have tea but you had to cancel because you had a bad cold.’

‘Ah, yes,’ he said, smiling warmly, extending his hand to me. ‘I do remember. I was so sorry that I was unable to see you then. Perhaps we can share that cup of tea now, if John would be so kind.’ Which, happily for me, he was.

Henri, John and I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting amicably about photography (of course!), about Americans, about Paris vs London vs New York. I cannot recall all the details of our conversation but I do remember how gracious and charming my hero was.

Sadly, neither John nor’ HCB’ (our picture researchers’ shorthand for Henri Cartier-Bresson) is with us any longer. But the memory of our tea together will stay with me forever.

1 Comment on My Afternoon Tea with Henri Cartier-Bresson

  1. Joy Lennick
    November 9, 2015 at 1:46 pm (3 years ago)

    What illustrious company you kept, Mari! So interesting and what a wonderful memory.

    Reply

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