Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great photographer, hated to be photographed. In 1987, however, he reluctantly agreed to have a portrait made for Life magazine to publicise a forthcoming exhibition of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. John Loengard, the picture editor of Life at the time, and a distinguished documentary photographer, took no chances and assigned himself to do the portrait.
When Loengard arrived to meet Cartier-Bresson at his summer house in Provence, the master insisted that he would only be photographed from behind. There was a little debate about this. Aged 79, Cartier-Bresson was, Loengard recalled, “still a simmering teakettle. There’d be steam and the lid would be rattling. Then just as quickly he’d quiet down and be his attentive self again.”
As a compromise, Cartier-Bresson suggested that Loengard might photograph him swimming in his favourite local pool, but when they arrived there, the pool was closed. On the way back, Cartier-Bresson stopped to draw a landscape he liked and Loengard photographed him but the picture was too static.
In the end, Martine Franck, Cartier-Bresson’s wife and fellow photographer, came to the rescue. She rummaged through a cupboard to find the kite that her husband liked to fly with their 15-year-old daughter. There was just enough wind to get the kite into the air. “You can ask someone to fly a kite,” Loengard observed of his portrait, which is a star turn in a gallery exhibition of Life photography, “but you don’t tell them how to fly the kite. How they run and what they do is their business. Suddenly, if they’re doing it in front of you and your camera, it gives you some information to convey to a viewer – even when they make sure you don’t see their face.”
LIFE runs at Atlas Gallery, 49 Dorset Street, London W1; 28 November to 1 Feb 2020