Sun, 11 May 2003

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson inaugurates foundation

Kunang Helmi-Picard, Contributor, Paris

Bung (older brother) Henri Cartier-Bresson's eyes twinkle when he repeats: "Sekali merdeka, tetap merdeka!" (Once freedom, always freedom).

The famous photographer still clearly remembers his experience in newly independent Indonesia 57 years ago. He applies the same youthful enthusiasm and principles to the foundation inaugurated on April 29 that bears his name.

His wife, Martine Franck, herself an accomplished photographer and Magnum member, and Cartier-Bresson, intended the foundation to be much more than just a traditional museum. It is to be a house open to all. Their daughter Melanie was involved in the initial idea, born three years ago.

Franck stresses: "We wanted to do this for quite some time. We set up this institution to prevent the dispersal of Cartier- Bresson's work and the foundation was given state approval on March 11, 2002."

"However, it is neither a museum nor a mausoleum and we want it to be open to everybody: photographers, artists, architects and filmmakers."

The foundation receives support from the Old Broad Street Charity Trust, a UK-registered charity whose aims are principally directed toward support of the arts.

The Henri Cartier-Bresson International Award has also been reinstated and the prize worth 30,000 euros will be awarded every two years. This will enable the winning photographer to complete a long-term project. NSMD Bank and NSM Vie are the sponsors and the winner will be announced at the beginning of June, while a show of his or her work will be shown next year at the foundation.

The five-story atelier of glass and steel filled with light is situated in a peaceful cul-de-sac, Impasse Lebouis, in Montparnasse. Two stories are allocated to an exhibition space where visitors will also be able to discover or rediscover images by the 94-year-old Frenchman who raised photojournalism to an art form.

Here they will also be able to view his drawings, paintings and writings, as well as his films, besides documentaries and videos about his work. Exchange and debate will be promoted through conference and lecture programs.

The theme of the opening exhibition organized by Robert Delpire -- his faithful friend, curator and the director of the foundation -- is an outstanding selection of works by photographers that marked the master photographer's artistic vision.

"Cartier-Bresson's own choice" reveals over 90 black-and-white images ranging from a vintage print by Eugene Atget showing a very young Jacques Henri Lartigue -- later to become a famous photographer himself -- among an audience of other children, to a very recent, and amusing, snow-filled image taken by young Finnish photographer Pentti Sammalahti.

Several fellow Magnum photographers are included in the selection, as well as the image that triggered his initial enthusiasm and wish to continue photography: Martin Munkacsi's photo of three boys playing on the shores of Lake Tanganyika reflected the joy of living, together with an ideal photo composition that was to inspire Cartier-Bresson for several decades. Luckily, a small catalog is also available of this inaugural show.

At the parallel exhibition, the sheer volume of his work stuns visitors to the retrospective shown at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France at the other side of Paris. Here over 300 images of his work spanning over half a century make for intense concentration. Family portraits, drawings and paintings by the photographer, often called "the eye of the century", complete the pictorial history of his work.

Favorite paintings and works of art by the photographer's artist friends hint at the personal taste of the French photographer who traveled the world incessantly, witness to many events that changed the course of history. He was also to found a remarkable photo agency in 1947 with four other photographers.

Magnum still exists today and represents over 50 photographers, with branches in Paris, New York and London.

The landmark show was curated by Robert Delpire and is a fitting tribute to the photographer whom many French people regard as a "living treasure". The show will travel to Barcelona and several other venues in the months to come.

Typically, however, at the official opening on April 28, Cartier-Bresson, as shy and untamed as ever, broke away from the minister of culture while touring the exhibition and welcomed the man who developed all his prints at Picto. The minister was left looking rather lost, but was soon greeted by some of the hundreds of "VIPs" who swirled around the space, trying to catch a glimpse of the famous photographer and of the photographs on display. Many immediately bought the heavy catalog available in English at Thames and Hudson, besides being published by Gallimard in French. The book promises to be a best-seller already.