Annotation: The Mind’s Eye

As much as he gets talked about, and as much as I love his photography, I must say I’m not too impressed with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s writing. The Mind’s Eye is a collection of writing that Henri has done over his career about photographers and photography. Unfortunately, Henri is french and as such thinks in French. Different languages foster different modes of thought and different styles of communication. Personally, I found his writing style very quotable in small vignettes, but lacking greater substance when taken as a whole. This is further exacerbated by the relative shortness of each piece, the average length being 3-5 pages. Since it’s so many short pieces, it isn’t really worthwhile, in my eyes, to address each. Instead I’ll address my views on the three major topics: “The Camera as Sketchbook”, “Time and Place”, and “On Photographers and Friends”.

“The Camera as Sketchbook” was the most coherent and pertinent section of the book, in my opinion. It discusses the process of photography, using it to capture those decisive moments about topics you are passionate about. It also has the title essay, “The Mind’s Eye”, which discusses developing your inner senses, learning to be in tune with your surroundings so that you are both aware and prepared for when a key moment comes. These tidbits would be more useful, of course, if he bothered saying more on possible methods to develop one’s abilities, how to capture the decisive moment, how to work your passions into your photography, how to refine the mind’s eye, instead of just saying they are necessary. This was when I first started to become disappointed in this book; when you realize you are halfway through a book and keep on waiting for the author to get past summary and to the rest of the content, it’s probably a sign that it’s not the proper book for you.

“Time and Place”, you would think, would discuss time and place as it pertains to photography. Perhaps a discussion on when and where it is appropriate to photograph, and when one should just set aside the camera and appreciate it as a personal moment, perhaps that would make sense for such a chapter header. Perhaps Cartier-Bresson just had a really bad editor who gave the collections poor titles. Because it was just a collection of his writing on his photographic escapades to various places at pivotal times in history (Mao’s march in China, for instance). This was not really what was described and sold to me as. I felt vaguely betrayed by Aperture (the publisher) for describing the book in one fashion on the cover and in the book leaf, and then having it actually being a significantly different book.

“On Photographers and Friends” was really pretty boring. It had even less continuity than the previous sections, which either segued from one topic to another relatively smoothly, or was done in some semblance of chronological order. This section, however, had none of that. It was just a mishmash of eulogies or statements on various friends Henri has had over the years, like André Breton, and Robert Capa. It’s nice to hear his thoughts on these influential people, but come on. That said, each commentary is extremely brief, and really isn’t very useful in any sort of scholarly sense. To put it into perspective: Henri discussed 15 photographers and friends, which took him 29 pages of large, spacious type in a small book, including pictures and copies of his handwritten letters (where applicable).

I hate to say it, but I really do feel like this was a case of Aperture collecting the random ramblings of an old man, feeding like vultures on the carcass of fame. This sort of obsessive capitalization on the fame of an individual is something that is truly offensive to me. It gluts the market with wasted time and wasted shelf space, and obscures the truly effective and useful books from the inexperienced reader (and how is one to know what books to seek and what books to avoid? You can only make a guess, albeit a somewhat more educated one as you go along). Between this and other books I’ve read published by Aperture, I really am beginning to develop a strong distaste for them — a shame, since they are such a large publisher of photography and I feel like I should do what I can to support such endeavors.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Mind’s Eye. Aperture, 1999.