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Henri Cartier-Bresson in India Paperback – 28 Jun 1993
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This record of Cartier-Bresson's fascination with India over half a lifetime contains the very best of his photographs of that country, produced during six extended visits, the first at the time of Independence, the most recent in 1987. His images are shaped by an eye and a mind legendary for their empathy and for going to the heart of the matter. Cartier-Bresson's talent, his famous "mantle of invisibility" and his good connections with such figures as Nehru, allowed him to capture the quintessence of India - a land renowned for its contradictions and variety. His pictures of Hindus in refugee camps after the Partition or of beggars in Calcutta, speak with the same passion and authority as those of the Maharaja of Baroda's sumptuous birthday celebrations, or of the Mountbattens posed on the steps of Government House. Considerable space is given to his famous reportages, such as the astonishing sequence on the death and cremation of Gandhi. Above all, his skill selects the apparently ordinary faces and scenes from market, temple or countryside that define the spirit of a country.
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So what would a reader like to know when looking at an album of photos taken by one of the great photographers of the 20th century? One would expect a detailed description of why he went to India. How long did he stay? - an important point. The more time you have the better your chances of taking good photos. What were his thoughts about the country and its people? Did he speak to anyone? There's no record in this book that he spoke to anyone! How did he take his pictures? What went through his mind when he took them? Was he concerned about the poverty, or was he merely excited in recording striking images? In other words, I would expect a substantial essay explaining what the photographer was doing and how these pictures fit into his other work.
Instead, we get exactly one paragraph on the disposable dust jacket! There's a useless Foreword by Satyjit Ray that tells us Cartier-Bresson is a wonderful photographer. We know. That's why we bought the damn book.
Then there's a preposterous essay by Yves Vequad about Hinduism that goes on for pages. If I want a book on religion I'll buy one. I won't buy an album of photos.
The pictures exist in a vacuum - beautiful images from an exotic country, but wrenched out of context with no explanation except a few words in captions tucked away at the back of the book.
This nonsense went on for years. T and H published album after album - all with fatuous introductions that told us nothing of interest about the photographer, or his work - just sycophantic pseudo-intellectual claptrap by fawning critics, many of whom were the photographer's friends.
We had wait until Cartier-Bresson died for the nonsense to stop and for diligent researchers to dig something meaningful out of the archives. This is a disgrace.
I remember my disappointment and anger all those years ago as I looked at one book after another produced by Cartier-Bresson. I felt he and his publishers were cheating the public. I still do. Looking at this album again all these years later I feel anger rising inside me. How dare they treat readers with such contempt.
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