Hyeres, Cartier-Bresson

All takes to be a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, is “one finger, one eye and two legs”. Then, Cartier-Bresson must have possessed one of the best eyes in the business. Born in 1908 in Paris into a wealthy family, Cartier-Bresson had a lusty, rebellious hunger for travel. With a head full of Rimbaud and a copy of “Ulysses” under his arm, he set off for west Africa in search of adventure. (He aspired to be a painter, but Gertrude Stein suggested he drop the brushes).

He bought his first Leica in the Côte d’Ivoire when he was 23. It fitted into his pocket, along with a few rolls of film. With this new and light equipment — it and rolls of film fitted nicely into coat pockets — Cartier-Bresson would document everyone from Balinese dancers and Mongolian wrestlers to Spanish matadors and New York bankers. When snapping a spectacle—be it a coronation, a sporting event, or a parade—he trained his camera on the unsuspecting bystanders. He would wait until that “decisive moment” when the right composition filled the frame. And it all came so naturally, too: he rarely used a light meter, checked his aperture setting, took more than a few shots of a single subject, and almost never cropped his photos.

The photo above was taken in 1932 in Hyeres, a small town on the French Riviera, and has been featured in many retrospectives on Cartier Bresson’s work. The decisive moment here nicely juxtaposes the fleeting biker with the spiral staircase; the poignancy of the moment is accentuated by the fact that although the photo seems as if it was taken accidentally or on the spot, we can also imagine Cartier-Bresson crouching over those railings in Hyeres for hours, waiting for the right instant. I choose the image here because of a funny internet-age back story. Without mentioning that it was taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, someone has posted the photo in a flickr group for public criticism. Most commentators ripped the photo apart (especially the blurry biker part) in the comments that are scathing and hilarious. De gustibus non est disputandum, indeed.

Partition of India

It was one of the most dunderheaded moves in an imperial history chockfull with them: the partition of India. Its population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide up the subcontinent. Yet, a boundary commission was given mere six weeks to carve a Muslim-majority state from British India, and two Pakistans were formed. More ridiculous still, the commission was led by a British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe who had never been in the East before.

Indeed he was chosen because he knew nothing about India and therefore absolutely unbiased. Inexperienced and time-crunched, Radcliffe just drew some lines on the map without realizing that his demarcation line went straight through thickly populated areas, villages and sometimes even through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other. His error was pointed out by the commission but the scheduled independence day was looming and it was too late to redo the entire thing. Disgraced, Radcliffe refused his salary, quietly destroyed all his papers and left India on the Independence Day itself, before even the boundary awards were distributed. W.H. Auden later pilloried the absurdity of the way he crafted the border in Partition.

The immediate consequences of the partition were horrendous for both countries. Although in retrospect, there probably was nothing the commission could have done. Once the Moslems and the Hindus decided to part their ways, even the most carefully crafted border would have provoked the massive exoduses. But the hurried and indifferent nature of the partition meant the ethnic cleansing that followed was unavoidable.

In India during the Partition were two of the last century’s greatest photojournalists: Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson — both there to document Gandhi, Cartier-Bresson just a few hours before Gandhi assassination. Above, Bourke-White recorded streets littered with corpses, dead victims with open eyes, and refugees with vacant eyes. The partition was “massive exercise in human misery,” later reflected Bourke-White. Self-proclaimed Indophile, Cartier-Bresson later arrived a little later, documented the new way of life, from the fattened maharajahs at the top to those in refuge camps after the partition at the bottom. (below)