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Weber, N.F. (2018). Henri Cartier-Bresson at Age Ninety-Four: Turning the Lens Inward. Am. Imago, 75(2):153-178.

(2018). American Imago, 75(2):153-178

Henri Cartier-Bresson at Age Ninety-Four: Turning the Lens Inward

Nicholas Fox Weber

There is a single line from my three hours with Henri Cartier-Bresson in the winter of 2003 that I hear in my head just about every single day. Why the remark of the photographer, who was then ninety-four years old, persists in replaying itself like a mantra has to do, possibly, more with my own psyche than his, but I assure you that I recall it all the time, with such insistence that it has become part of my everyday life. Clearly it speaks to an issue that is very personal to me, but I am convinced it is also a pathway into our understanding the sensibility and deepest desires of the extraordinary photographer who made such powerful images of human life that many people see civilization, all over the world, differently, and more compassionately, as a result of them.

Cartier-Bresson's remark, the first time he made it, simply baffled me. I smiled politely as if I understood completely, but I was absolutely clueless. We had been discussing, first, his initial foray into photography in Côte d'Ivoire. A bit later, I had asked him about Langston Hughes; I love Hughes's poetry, and knew they had lived together for a while in the 1930s. But the conversation was not linear; it rambled, and I was simply doing my best to follow and steer at the same time. Then, making it clear with his raised eyebrows and intense regard that he was about to issue a major statement, that he was giving me a key that would guide me to his ultimate self, Cartier-Bresson said to me, “You know, I can pass for white.”

Maybe the reason five of those words -the “I can pass for white” is what counts, the “you know” a form of politesse—are so tantalizing is both because I am, at times, totally convinced that I understand what Cartier-Bresson was telling me, and at other moments I return to the confusion I experienced when he uttered the provocative statement for the first time.

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