Beyond Photography: Joseph Mitchell, Meet Henri Cartier-Bresson

Joseph Mitchell, courtesy Alex Belth's

Some great art and literature has come from a sense of place. Marco Polo’s memoirs, Jack Kerouac’s writing, the painting of Wood or Kahlo, and the photography of Adams, Rowell and dozens of others each have a depth and richness that comes from being exposed to new and unfamiliar places. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, when photographers look with envy on our traveling peers, whether they’re shooting war journalism in Kabul, a Nat Geo spread in Bangkok, or just vacation snaps in Cabo San Lucas.

I’m reminded of this reading the work of Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell’s name has, in large part, faded from memory, which is a shame. Over the course of nearly four decades spent shuttling back and forth between Manhattan and North Carolina, Mitchell made his name documenting New York’s more eccentric denizens (his Joe Gould stories would’ve been enough of a template for New Journalism, even if he’d never written anything else) and everyday folks (fishermen at the Fulton Fish Market, a Trinidadian rent party). And while the writer never made the connection explicit, the heartbeat under the story was just as much the city’s as the subject’s. That’s probably due, in no small part, in Mitchell’s interest in this motley cast of characters not as stories, but as people. Reading his anthologies (My Ears are Bent, which anthologizes his earlier journalism, and Up In the Old Hotel, which collects his writing for the New Yorker) you never get the sense of an agenda beyond just getting to know someone, and letting them tell their own story. In some ways, for as carefully as he wrote, Mitchell seemed almost incidental to the stories he told.

”]Unlike Joseph Mitchell, Henri Cartier-Bresson is something close to a household name, at least if your household’s big on photography. Cartier-Bresson was well-traveled. His work would take him to Africa, Spain, India, the United States and elsewhere, and would find him photographing the likes of Picasso, Pound and Giacometti. But like Mitchell, HCB’s work is built on a sense of place, and built mostly on his depictions of everyday people. He’s practically synonymous with France, but most of all with Paris… Parisian kids, workers, students and lovers, through war, peace, protests and drudgery. Cartier-Bresson emphasized “the decisive moment,” but never found a moment any less decisive because the people or events in it were so ordinary; if anything, like Mitchell, he reveled in it.

In their own ways, each man didn’t just chronicle their cities, they were their cities. They were, in some sense, intensely local, but by no means provinical. Both men’s travels aside, Mitchell’s New York had already become, and Bresson’s Paris was becoming, a global city, drawing their identities and their culture from all corners of the earth. While we remember them both now for other reasons (Mitchell for his influence on a generation of writers and journalists, Cartier-Bresson for practically defining street photography), I’d argue that in their time, maybe without intending to or realizing it, both men were on the leading edge of making sense of exactly where life was going in the latter half of the last century. They introduced their cities anew to the world, not as sprawl but as intensely detailed specificity. It might be exaggerating to say that either man shaped the places they called home, but both had, and continue to have, no equals in communicating a perception and feel of those cities to the world. And both men’s work found itself informed by a generousity of spirit, a willingness to take the denizens of their cities on their own terms. This isn’t the clinical work of sociologists; it’s suffused with the warmth of someone who’s taken the time to get to know the neighbors, and decides that he likes ’em, warts and all.

While a bit of travel can be a great thing — the chance to experience new things, places and people — we can’t have blinders on when it comes to all there is to experience closer to home. That’s not to advocate for some kind of blinkered provincialism; rather, it’s advocacy for, or just a simple acknowledgement of, the riches on our own doorsteps, and the wealth of stories waiting for us to see, hear, and tell them.


Joseph Mitchell on the Web:

The best starting point for anything related to Joseph Mitchell is his writing. I’d suggest reading the books chronologically (My Ears Are Bent*, followed by Up in the Old Hotel*), since it gives a good idea of the writer’s evolution. The obligatory Wikipedia entry will give you the bare facts of his life, but I’d also suggest two tributes written to him, one by the New Yorker’s Mark Singer, and the other by the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli. There’s also an interesting bit on Mitchell’s eccentric collections of things here, and Charlie Rose chatting about Joseph Mitchell with Roger Angell and David Remnick here.

Henri Cartier-Bresson on the Web:

The Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson conserves the photographer’s legacy, but you can also find out more about him on Wikipedia, on Magnum Photos (the agency he co-founded). There’s also an interview with Charlie Rose that’s well worth the time. And while countless gallons of ink have been spilled over Cartier-Bresson’s work, if you’d like a good (if slightly pricey) introduction to his work, there’s Peter Galassi’s excellent Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,* which was published in conjunction with a major HCB retrospective at the MoMA in 2010.

*Links followed by an asterisk are Amazon affilite links.

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