“My Time With Henri Cartier-Bresson” by Ishu Patel

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Eric’s NoteThis original article was published on Ishu Patel’s site and re-published here with permission. It details Ishu Patel’s time with Henri Cartier-Bresson and gets some insightful views into his life and photography. 

AFTER GRADUATING IN 1963 from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Baroda, India I was lucky enough to be selected by Gira Sarabhai to train as an “apprentice” at the newly formed National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. And therein lies the story of my valued memories of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The plan was to select a cohort of talented Fine Arts and Architecture graduates and to apprentice them in various design disciplines in order to become the future faculty of the National Institute of Design. During those amazing early years the giants of contemporary design from all over the world were invited to the Institute, staying on for months, even years at a time, as teachers and mentors, consultants and project heads. Who came? – Designers Ray & Charles Eames, architect Louis Khan, furniture designer Nakashima, graphic designers Armin Hoffman, Bob Gill, Leo Leonni, and Ivan Chermayeff, animation filmmaker Gullio Gianini, typographer Adrian Frutiger, textile designers Alexander Gerard and Helena Perhentupa, music composer John Cage . . . just to mention a few.

So it was not strange that in December 1965, the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived at NID from Paris. On his earlier 1947 visit to India Cartier-Bresson had photographed the pivotal moments of Freedom, the partition of India, and months later, the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi. Those photographs were well known all over the world. This was his fifth visit to India. He was here this time primarily to photograph the Kumbha Mela, which occurs every twelve years, and also a Congress Party session in Jaipur, to be officiated by the Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Surprisingly, all the technical work of processing Cartier-Bresson’s negatives and photos was to be done at NID under his strict supervision. It was known that precise processing of his negatives was vitally important to Cartier-Bresson. In fact, in the matter of processing his films he trusted no one but one particular lab in Paris. My close friend and colleague P.M. Dalwadi was asked to take up the challenge and he successfully processed a few “sample” negatives for Cartier-Bresson, who, amazingly, was very satisfied with the results.

Dalwadi was specializing in Photography. Although my own training was in Graphic Design, photography was fortunately one of the disciplines all of us had to learn. Two years earlier, during construction of the massive New York Nehru Exhibition designed by Ray & Charles Eames, I had spent six months in the darkroom at NID making prints day and night until my finger tips and nails turned tobacco brown and smelled permanently of chemicals. We couldn’t have cared less about the amount of work we had, as we were young and ready to learn everything. So the arrival of Cartier-Bresson was a thrilling event, and my friend Dalwadi’s association with him was to be a wonderful thing and the beginning of a life time friendship for them.

Unlike other visiting consultants at NID, Cartier-Bresson kept a very low profile. There were no lectures, no “show and tell”, and no press coverage. An arrangement was made for a senior faculty member to assist and accompany him on his photographic journeys, and all was going well.

His photographic forays within the city of Ahmedabad began at the Sabarmati River near the NID campus and followed the river to Gandhi’s Ashram, and continued to the old walls of the city, including its bazaars, markets and narrow street life. Day by day he covered the surrounding historical sites, village’s, towns, festivals and fairs. Meanwhile my friend Dalwadi successfully processed the negatives shot by Cartier-Bresson and made contact prints. From time to time Dalwadi let me see the contact prints, although no one was really allowed to see or touch either the negatives or the contact prints, except the master himself. Seeing the contact prints was a great privilege for me. All his exposures were perfect and the famous “decisive moments” truly were there, captured in each frame. Surprisingly to me, there were no close ups and no portraits.

All this time I never met the master. I only saw him from a distance. He was a slim man with short hair and rimless glasses, who dressed casually in light clothing, carried a small camera and talked very little. You would hardly notice him. But I was soon to meet him under rather inauspicious circumstances.

It was the month of February and Maha Shivaratri day falls during this month. All across India Shiva Temples prepare “bhang” as an offering to Lord Shiva and they distribute small amounts to the worshipers. Bhang is made by grinding marijuana leaves in copper bowls with almonds and milk. It can be very potent if more than a small glass is consumed.

A private gathering in honour of Cartier-Bresson was organized at the home of the senior staff member who had been accompanying him during his photo shoots. Dalwadi and I and a few other apprentices were invited to test the bhang expertly prepared by the mother of the house. Although we all had slightly more than recommended, Cartier-Bresson was offered, and was careful to consume, only a small amount of drink. But very soon after that he felt weary and could not tolerate the experience. We got scared, rushed him to the family doctor and the party was over! This was the first time I had met Henri Cartier-Bresson face to face. Next day we were all relieved to know that no harm was done to him.

Some weeks later I was called into the NID secretary’s office and was informed that I had been chosen to assist Henri Cartier-Bresson during his shoot at the Congress Session to be held in the city of Jaipur. Why I was chosen I did not know. I was to take a train to Jaipur one day in advance of Cartier-Bresson, wait for him to arrive at Jaipur airport, and then to look after his needs and accompany and assist him as he covered the Congress Session of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. I was not supposed to ask any questions and was reminded by the Secretary that this was my great opportunity to work with a master. Indeed it was a life time opportunity for me. I was excited, scared, and could not wait to go. I had to be ready on short notice.

A few days later Cartier-Bresson came by my desk and asked me to walk with him around the NID grounds. He sat on a bench under a tamarind tree while I stood. In a kind voice he told me that we will be leaving together next day for Jaipur on the morning train and, if I wished, I could carry a camera but that I was never to take a picture of him, and I was never to photograph in the immediate area where he was photographing. There would be a few other things which I would have to do for him which he would explain while we travelled on the train. Shy and awestruck I replied, “Of course Mr. Cartier-Bresson, I will be ready”. He then said, “From now on call me Henri”.

The next day Henri and I took the train to Jaipur. Once we settled into our First Class compartment Henri revealed to me that, due to my status as an apprentice, Institution regulations did not permit me to travel by plane with him to Jaipur, and therefore he had chosen not to fly, but to take the train so that we could travel together. Furthermore my travelling by First Class was also an exception made only at his insistence. According to government rules I should have been travelling in a Third Class carriage.

About an hour later our train made a stop at a small town. Snack and fruit sellers and chai-wallas surrounded our carriage. We bought some bananas and two hot chai from a vendor, and quickly the train took off again. We felt refreshed and Henri told me that in future I should always buy for us only those fruits which could be peeled and those drinks that are bottled or boiled. All this time his battered little Leica was never far away from his reach.

From his suitcase he pulled out a small nylon bag containing a note book, a spare Leica body wrapped in a handkerchief, and a 35 mm wide-angle lens also wrapped in a handkerchief. He said that I would be recording in the notebook as accurately as possible the description of the places where he was photographing. He handed me all this with instructions to keep it with me at all times when we go out to shoot pictures. Compared to his light-weight and almost invisible equipment, I was carrying a bulky Contarex camera, borrowed from NID, that had a boisterous shutter mechanism. I felt bad.

At each train stop Henri went out and took some pictures while I stayed in the compartment and looked after our belongings. Arriving at Jaipur in the evening, we headed to our hotel. Henri apologized and asked me if I would mind sharing a room with him, since, as an apprentice, I did not qualify for a room of my own. But if I preferred my own room, he would personally pay for it. I thanked him and said, “No problem at all.” and carried our luggage to the room. After dinner we came back to our room and there I witnessed for the first time, his evening ritual.

After changing in to his night clothes, he sat on his bed and assembled two large Kodak film cans, each distinctly marked “Exposed” and “Unexposed”, a black cloth zippered bag, a dozen or more film cassettes, a pair of scissors and a roll of black plastic tape. He arranged them neatly on his bed and asked me not to disturb him or talk to him for an hour, but just to watch what he does and if I have any questions he will answer me later.

He unzipped the black bag and placed inside it the two Kodak film cans, the cassettes, the scissors and the plastic tape, and zipped it shut. This black day-light loading bag had two tight “armholes”, into which you inserted your hands in order to load light sensitive film. He pushed his two hands through the elastic armholes of the bag and began the long ritual of unloading that day’s exposed film from the cassettes and rolling it loosely into the empty film can marked ‘Exposed”. After that, rolling new film from the Kodak can, he wound it inside the cassettes for the next day’s shooting. During this long process he was whispering numbers in French.

I was familiar with the process of loading and unloading cassettes because at NID we all had to learn to fill our own cassettes, but we did this in a darkroom with lots of space, and often made a mess of it. While he was busy doing this I kept wondering why he would not just buy the loaded film cassettes from Kodak. The only reason we rolled the cassettes ourselves was because it was cheaper.

He neatly tucked away everything except the batch of freshly loaded cassettes. From each cassette there protruded a three inch tail of film. He took each cassette and trimmed that tail to half width making about a 3” skinny tab ready to be wound onto the camera spindle when ready. He licked his index finger and wet the emulsion on the tab. With a pen-like tool with a sharp metal end he scratched the wet emulsion and wrote the month, year and the number of the cassette. He marked about 20 Cassettes this way and handed them to me to include in the white nylon bag containing the spare Leica body. I would be carrying this bag tomorrow along with the notebook.

Henri began to explain his entire method. “Since I am dealing with sensitive film emulsion I must wash my hands with soap and water like a surgeon before I touch the film. I unload the previous day’s exposed film from the cassettes in the dark bag and roll it on to a spool and store it in this can marked “Exposed film”. I then reload the empty cassettes with fresh film. I don’t like to use the commercially available day-light loading tanks for fear of scratching the film. I do all this not to save money but to protect my work. During my travels to different countries and places I shoot hundreds of cassettes of film. They all have to be sent to a Paris lab for processing by the only person I trust. Buying commercial film rolls could be very risky and bulky. They are not stored properly and carry different batch numbers. This way I minimize the bulk and I never run out of the film no matter how remote I am.”

Henri then took out a small strip of 35mm film to show me how he attaches the film to the reel of a cassette and how he counts his turns inside the bag, saying, “Forty of my turns like this makes exactly 36 exposures for each cassette. Like a monk I do this almost every night.” I had no more questions for him. I was already overwhelmed by his process and the patience he took to explain all the details to me.

Next day early morning we took an auto rickshaw to the city centre. Suddenly he was a different person. While we passed through the narrow streets into alley ways, and from bazaars into crowded markets, he made himself as inconspicuous as possible, the entire time shooting pictures. He carried no shoulder-bags so that he could move very freely in the crowded areas. He never wore his camera around his neck like most photographers do. Instead, if he was not taking pictures even for a short period of time, he covered his little Leica with a handkerchief and kept walking and looking for interesting situations to photograph. Once he noticed something he liked, he disappeared so fast I had to look for him. Just when I locked on to him, he was gone again. He walked so fast that by the time someone knew that they had been photographed, he was gone.

Very rarely did he take pictures in bright sun light, instead he preferred to take pictures in either reflected light or shaded areas to avoid sharp contrasts and to capture all the details, textures and fine grey tones. For this reason he almost always used Kodak Tri-X (400ASA) film. Almost every half hour I passed him a cassette of fresh film and made notes for the exposed cassette which he had just handed to me. I was glad that I did not bring my camera with me that first day. I was happy to observe him in action. There was a lot to learn.

I couldn’t believe how simple his Leica was. The Leica body had no rewinding leaver. To advance the film he had to manually turn the little round knob twice on the camera. There was no focusing ring on the lens either. He had to judge the distance himself and choose the setting on the lens, while capturing his famous “decisive moments” in crowded places. Later on he explained to me that this was all done by choice. Over the years he had simplified the technical part of photography to suit his unobtrusive shooting style and still create a technically perfect photograph. For instance, he judged the light by eye, although he carried a small light meter in his pants pocket. Since he mostly shot in shaded areas he set his F stop at 5.6 or 8 and shutter speed at 1/60th to 1/125th of a second, so he could quickly pay attention to his subject matter. He made it clear that, “technique is not so important to me, but people and their activities are”. He said, “Think about the photograph before and after, but not during. The secret is to take your time but also to be very quick”. In other words there was to be no cropping of the image later, no dodging or other tricks used in printing. The image captured on film had to stand on its own merits.

This went on day after day. We covered many places in Jaipur, including locations that were full of people and activities. When it got too hot at noon we would take a small break and eat something safe in the same area. Otherwise we lived all day on bananas, nuts, bottled cold drinks and hot chai. We must have walked many miles each day as Henri would photograph until sunset. All this time I still had no courage to use my Contarex camera!

A high ranking official from the Rajasthan State Ministry of Information had invited us to meet him for lunch, and he had also convinced Henri that he should, later in that evening, address a gathering of local press photographers. After shooting pictures in the morning we met the gentleman with his wife and two young daughters at the restaurant. Henri knew the family very well from his earlier visits and so during lunch they all talked to each other with great affection. The girls referred to Henri as “Uncle”.

After lunch he took some pictures of the family outside the restaurant. At one point he handed me his Leica, joined the family for a group photo, and asked me to take a few pictures. This was the only time I took a photo of Henri, and of course it was safe inside his own Leica.

That afternoon he took a snooze at the hotel and in the evening a government car picked us up and took us to a small hall where about fifty local press photographers were waiting for Henri among a hastily arranged group of rusty folding chairs. His friend introduced Henri to the photographers and announced that they should respect Mr. Cartier-Bresson’s wish and not take any pictures. One could hear the disappointment in their whispers. Henri got up and apologized for the photographic restrictions, and holding his Leica high up in his hand, he told them that he doesn’t usually make speeches, but that he simply tries to photograph the truth with his little camera. His only message to them all was to strive to photograph the truth. After hand shaking, chatting and snacking on finger food we left for the hotel. Once again that night Henri spent an hour at his ritual of unloading and reloading film cassettes while I watched.

Next day was the start of the Congress Session located on a military campground outside the city of Jaipur, and it would last for the next five days. Hundreds of delegates and VIPs had already arrived a few days in advance while Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived only the previous night, and the morning newspapers were full of photos of her arrival and of the campground full of large tents. Although the official opening of the session would not start till 10 am we left much earlier as Henri was most interested in the crowds lining up along the roadside waiting to get a glimpse of the Prime Minister’s motorcade. I still had not shot any film, but Henri insisted that I must take my camera to this event. He said I must take some pictures of Mrs. Gandhi. After all, she was my country’s first woman Prime Minister. I was overjoyed.

After exposing several rolls of film among the crowds, we arrived at the entrance of the huge main tent. Our Press passes had been arranged by the gentleman with whom we’d had lunch. The tent was packed with Congress Party delegates, most wearing white Nehru caps. A circular stage was set up featuring large pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as backdrop, and covered with hundreds of Indian flags. Under the pictures of the two founding fathers of a free India, the first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, sat on the floor-mats against white calico covered cushions with her Ministers and advisers. The air hummed with murmurs as anticipation was building for Mrs. Gandhi to address the delegates.

Henri and I took pictures of Mrs. Gandhi and the others as we entered the tent and walked along the circular stage toward her. Using the noisy Contarex camera, I stayed as far away as possible from Henri. Recognizing Henri from a distance, Mrs. Gandhi sprang to her feet and hurried toward the edge of the stage, greeting him with a big smile. Henri joined his hands in the Namaste gesture, and moved close to her. She crouched down at the edge of the stage and took his hands in hers with an outpouring of affection, and they spoke warmly in French. In all of this Henri did not forget to introduce me to her. I could barely contain myself. I was shaking. All I could do was to nod my head to Mrs. Gandhi. She then smiled at me and said in Hindi,“Unka achha khyal karo.” (“Look after him well!”) Henri waved his Leica to her as she went back up the stage. For the next five days we seemed like the most important VIP’s in tent!

After the five-day Congress Session was over we spent several additional days photographing in some nearby villages before taking the train back to Ahmedabad. I continued to accompany Henri for a few more days in Ahmedabad, in “the old city” and surrounding places. I processed a few of my own film rolls from Jaipur and showed him the contact prints and he gave me a lesson. With a grease pencil he marked a few photographs and asked me to make 8×10 prints. He looked at the prints, turning each one upside down several times, and selected just one. He took the photo and, turning it upside down again, he showed me an interesting “curve” that the subjects were forming in the composition. He said, “Of course this kind of composition is only good if there is a lot of other interesting information, expression or action in the photograph.”

Finally one day he came and thanked me for all my help. He informed me that he would be leaving for Trivendrum in South India, and would not return to NID. He gave me his home address in Paris and told me that if I ever got a chance to travel to Paris I must let him know. I was very sad to see him go and thought I would never see him again.

To my surprise, six weeks later in early May 1966 a large envelope came to NID on my name from Henri containing a few pages of his photographs taken in France but published in a German magazine. They included four color photographs, which surprised me. The photographs were not published with the typical Cartier-Bresson black outline, indicating the full frame, which also surprised me. I showed them to my colleagues and after all these years I have kept them as a memory.

That month I also got good news at NID. Along with two other colleagues I was chosen to go to Basel, Switzerland for advance studies in Graphic Design under Armin Hoffman for a period of one year. I was also supposed to sign some kind of bond with NID in return. I wrote to Henri about all this for his advice and by return mail he replied to me with his views and asked me for more details about my studies.

One year later in September 1967 I arrived in Basel along with my two colleagues to study Graphic Design. After getting in touch with Henri I journeyed during the school holidays of March 1968, to Paris by car with one of our teachers. Henri invited me to his apartment with great affection and I was overjoyed to see him after two years. In the evening he took me to see the night life of Paris. I was already overwhelmed by all this but later that night he took me to the famous Lido Club. We had a fine dinner together. This was all out of my reach. We spent all the next day sight-seeing, going to bookstores, cafes and market places. I will never forget the generosity and kindness he showed to me.

Before leaving Paris to return to Basel, on March 16, 1968, Henri signed a pocket book of his extraordinary photographs of the Chinese Revolution and Mao’s regime, and handed it to me. I still have the little book and cherish it, as I cherish all my memories of Henri.

Merci Henri.

Click to download Cartier-Bresson's letter to Ishu Patel
Click to download Cartier-Bresson's letter to Ishu Patel