Saturday, August 03, 2013

`Freedom For Me Is a Strict Frame'

Not a conventionally handsome man, A.J. Liebling was nevertheless photogenic. Pear-shaped, bald, with a dented head and severe-looking steel-rimmed glasses, his appearance was interesting -- comic, sad and impish, a clerk out of Dickens. He looked like his prose, at once exacting and extravagant. My favorite photograph of Liebling is the portrait shot in New York City in 1960 by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Liebling is alone, seated in what might be a private home or well-appointed hotel. The chair to his right is empty. Behind him is an empty couch, potted ferns, a small table with an ashtray and glass, and another table covered with an ice bucket and bottles. A party seems to be underway but Cartier-Bresson has shot Liebling in solitude, looking wryly grim. The glass in his right hand is empty and his bent left arm is wedged awkwardly between chair and chest – a fat man’s gesture. 

In a 1971 interview, Cartier-Bresson said: “Freedom for me is a strict frame, and inside that frame are all the variations possible. Maybe I’m classical. The French are like that. Photography as I conceive it, well, it’s a drawing — immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. But life is very fluid. Well, sometimes the pictures disappear and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, `Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.” 

Liebling, the most convivial of men, was likewise a depressive. Cartier-Bresson captures some of the writer’s human complexity. One of the few indisputably great photographers, confrère to Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson died on this date, Aug. 3, in 2004, at age ninety-five.

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