The great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had been very close with my friend and mentor, Ernst Haas. After Ernst died in 1986, I began compiling a list of friends and acquaintances of his to interview for a potential documentary project. At the top of the list was Cartier-Bresson. Knowing his desire for privacy and his well-known refusal to be photographed, filmed or taped, I sheepishly wrote to him anyway asking if I might interview him for the proposed project.
Time passed, and one day as I was literally walking out of the studio on my way to Europe for an assignment, the mail arrived. In it was a letter written on the old style air mail parchment [stationery] with the return address, ‘H.C-B., Paris.’ I nervously opened the letter, only to find that he would be more than happy to help me with the project on his friend “Haasi.” However, he included the stipulation that I would not be allowed to record the meeting with “any type of recording device.”
When he called on me at my hotel, I went downstairs to meet him and realized I had no idea what he looked like. But as soon as I got off the elevator, I saw a man dressed casually but elegantly, carrying a small backpack. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake. Upon returning to my room to do the interview, he immediately launched into memories of the ‘old days,’ Magnum, Ernst, Capa, etc. After five minutes of attempting to write down every word while listening to these wonderful stories, I stopped him mid-sentence and pleaded to let me use my tape recorder. (Yes, I brought one just in case). Stating that “what was said was already said,” he reluctantly agreed to let me tape the conversation. In gratitude, I told him that at anytime he wished for me to turn off the machine, I would.
Well, several times within the conversation he’d be delighting in the details of a story and as I was certain that he would not want to reveal the names of certain individuals he was talking about, I would reach for the stop button, only to have him say, “No, no, leave it on!”
After our meeting, he took me to a small cafe for a glass of wine. As we continued our conversation, he made a big point of saying that he was through with photography. Now he was only interested in drawing. Then he looked at his watch and realized that he had a model scheduled at his studio and excused himself. As we parted, I could not help but ask, ‘What’s in the backpack?’ And as he walked off, he replied, “My Leica.”