Uncoupled Perspectives

The Art of Photographer Martine Franck Captured the Indecisive Moments of Life, in Contrast to Husband Henri Cartier-Bresson

On The Town | Nayeli Urquiza | April 2007

It is said that opposites attract, and this certainly seems to be the case in the photography perspectives taken by Martine Franck and her husband and founder of the Magnum photography agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

"A photograph isn’t necessarily a lie, but nor is it the truth," Franck is quoted saying on Magnum’s webpage. "It’s more of a fleeting, subjective impression."

The exhibition "Martine Franck: From Day to Day" at the Westlicht Gallery, in Vienna’s 7th District, is a thirty-year collection of fleeting moments. Unlike her husband, known as the "father of photojournalism," Franck did not take pictures of "decisive moments," known as the "fraction of a second" in which the blend of the context and the subject are able to tell a story by themselves, without the need of any explanation.

Instead, Frank captured irrelevant and certainly forgettable moments: a truck lost in the mist, sliding over a French highway flanked by trees with chopped-off crowns, looking like maimed soldiers watching over the lost driver. Another irrelevant moment shows a crossroad with paths extending to the left and into the right; like two opposite horizons born from the same origin, and two men walk on the right road, giving the impression of not simply having chosen a road, but instead, their destiny.

Franck seems to have a preference, or even an uncontrollable attraction, for capturing moments that portray people’s solitude, made evident in two ways, or two different arrangements of the elements in Franck’s composition.

In one, she exposed a living being’s bareness by emphasizing the diminished size of two people next to the vast context of the desert surrounding the red city of Petra in Jordania. In another picture, a sheepdog and a group of birds curl up against each other as the wind blows and a stormy sky gives the impression of acting like a menacing blanket.

"What I most like about photography is the moment that you can’t anticipate: you have to be constantly watching for it, ready to welcome the unexpected," Franck says in another statement on the webpage.

This attitude is perhaps essential to Franck’s artistic versatility throughout her life. She was born on 1939, in Antwerp, Belgium, but grew up in the United States and in England, graduating in Art History from the University of Madrid and the École de Louvre. Her career took off after joining the VU photo agency and was later co-founder of the Viva Agency, also based in Paris, in 1972.

Franck also became a society photographer for Vogue, but with a difference; her portraits of France’s prominent faces in the 70s do not reflect the usual glitz and glamour. Instead, for example, she captured a fading and mature Lily Brik. In the photograph, the famous muse for the futurist Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, peeks to the side, avoiding the photographer’s gaze while she seems to be prostrated to a dark-colored chair. Another is the anti-modernist painter Balthus, a now-eclipsed hero of the pre-Second World War artistic movements, better known as "the king of cats," for his obsession to paint felines. Not surprisingly, this artist who had once inspired Pablo Picasso and André Breton, is pictured sitting on an old couch trying to catch an elusive real cat, in this photo taken not long before his death in 2001.

For Franck, the goal is not an objective, stiff and faithful reflection of reality. She plays a sort of "catch-the-image-game," readily visible in her photographs of philosopher Michel Foucault, designer Ives Saint Laurant, actress Hélène Cixous, Cartier-Bresson, and a little girl from a circus. All are captured in a very specific action: the search for the self through the imperfect other – a reflection in a mirror or painting a self-portrait.

Perhaps the image that takes this concept closest to perfection is of her husband Cartier-Bresson. In the image, he seems to be peeking back and forth from his reflected face, down to a pencil-drawn self-portrait which he holds tight in his hand. So, in the end, the artist and photographer multiply the man in time and space, where there are ultimately not only three, but four Cartier-Bressons, each living in a different realm: The mirror, the paper, the "real" one of whom we can only see half of profile and the back of his shoulder, and the one captured in Franck’s impression.

In 2003, Franck set up the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, which offers grants to aspiring photographers and protects the independence of Cartier-Bresson’s collection, a fitting homage to a man who revolutionized 20th Century photography.

It is this photograph, however, that may best immortalize the man she loved.

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