J.F. has found an old photography book, published in 1952: ”Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment.” He liked the design of the cover by Matisse.
He has found a piece of art history. Few books have been as important as a work of art image-wise and as important for the pedagogical instruction of the introduction by the artist. It’s reinforced by the way the images teach the artist’s philosophy.
J.F. has an original first edition, at a large 11.5- by 15-inch, published by Simon and Schuster.
Breakthrough? Yes, the design of the book enabled the photos to shine, because of the artful sequencing of the photos, the full page bleeds, and mat black-and-white printing. In the world of the art book, the images shot in Cartier- Bresson’s early years shown in this artful way influenced the way good photographers shoot and present work.
And then, there’s the influence of that title, “The Decisive Moment.”
That is the moment when all the right elements come together to form a great image, not the capture of the image of the “top” of the action, but capture the image as a form, a composition, a visual peak.
And of course, this is art, because art is not a real seen event, but a manufactured one that somehow captures the truth of an event, person, place or time. That’s the highest aim of art.
The value of the book lies in both its beauty and its rarity. It has been out of print for 69 years. Even though it didn’t sell well when published, the book has influenced street photography, documentary photography and photojournalism.
And the book speaks about a type of photography that might be a lost art, because we may now stage or digitally manipulate images, and we may focus on the concept or “reason” we are shooting, which defines so many of the images I send via my phone.
And J.F. notices that the book has no captions, which he mentions is frustrating, because today, we have been trained to look for meaning in captioned words instead of reading the visual language. Cartier- Bresson designed his book that way. The captions are way at the back, grouped together.
Furthermore, the artist designed the size and layout of the book to match the way his Leica shot. Each big page could hold one vertical image or two horizontal ones, or two pages spread open could hold one big horizontal image. And the pages are stitched so that they lay flat to do so.
Thus the art is produced by the artist and not necessarily the technology, and not the other way around, as we are wont to force photos today through photoshop and computer crops.
So collectors who are lucky enough to find this book pay dearly because it is a beautiful book about beautiful objects. And it is moreover a real book, whose pages have a texture, and, when on your lap, feels weighty, and whose pages turn from left to right! Imagine!
Cartier-Bresson wrote the lengthy introduction, followed by two sections (unmarked as such) of photos: the first, a series of shots in chronological order 1932-1947, and the next a series of shots made for publication organized geographically through 1947-1952. Cartier Bresson picked the images. And he left out many in his oeuvre, a lesson in editing.
Cartier-Bresson was trained as a painter, coming up through classical drawing classes in France, and yet in 1930-1960 he became enamored of photography. After 1960 he returned to drawing. Many of his images from this book are famous enough for one critic to call them “cultural wallpaper.” Robert Capa called the hard- to- find book a bible for photographers, and Cartier-Bresson became known as the father of modern photojournalism.
Here’s the skinny on value: The original price of the book in 1952 was $12.50. Three thousand were produced in France and 7,000 in America, for which a technical section, written by another artist, was included. Not the least of its beauty is the Matisse custom-designed cutouts which he created, and his hand lettering of the title and the artist’s name, for which he left out the hyphen.
Why was it not reprinted? Because it didn’t sell well in the first edition, although I see there’s a 2015 reprint now available. And another question: why no color shots? The artist saw color as inferior because of the slow speeds of color film.
The value of J.F.’s book is $2,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.