Jessica Helfand | Essays

An Instrument of Sufficiently Lucid Cogitation

The legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died on Tuesday at his home in the South of France, always carried a sketchbook with him. Today's obituary in The New York Times alleges that he described drawing as meditative, while photography was intuitive: though certainly both activities might have been informed by a relentless need to observe and in a sense, preserve the world around him. In Cartier-Bresson's later years, drawing trumped photography: here, "the decisive moment" (with which his photographs were so frequently described) was supplanted by a more organic process, a more immediate and gestural need to make something. Well into his nineties, Cartier-Bresson spent hours drawing in his Paris studio. And while his legacy of "bearing witness" with the camera is likely to prevail, it is his drawings which offer, perhaps, a more enduring evidence of the deeply human need to record evidence — a need which has critical implications for the designer.

In a recent review of the Ed Ruscha show at the Whitney, The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl considers photographic thinking ("the dominant problem in pictorial art since the 1950's") and, by extension, art that combines pictures and words. "A word is a thought, of course," Schjeldahl explains. "But any image, including a photograph, may become an instrument of sufficiently lucid cogitation." If an image is an instrument of sufficiently lucid cogitation, then what does this make the image maker? Like many good critics, Schjeldahl approaches the work of art with a kind of diagnostic appreciation, drawing broader cultural conclusions from a series of accumulated observations informed, no doubt, by an encyclopedic knowledge of historical antecedent. But the true instrument at work here is the mind: in this case, Ruscha's mind. (Michael Bierut has noted in an earlier post that the artist's numerous sketchbooks revealed a designer's mind at work — insightful, attentive to process and detail, emotionally resonant — and it is easy to imagine that Cartier-Bresson's sketchbooks would reveal a similar profusion of visual and indeed, human observations.)

Lucid cogitation, one might argue, is the designer's raison d'etre: after all, how can one invent anything in the absence of a clear mind? Yet at the same time, it is the relentless need to constantly make something that so aptly characterizes both Cartier-Bresson and Ruscha and so many like them, the photographers and the sculptors, the architects and the filmmakers and yes, absolutely: the graphic designers.

An anecdote. Earlier this summer, Lorraine Wild, William Drenttel and I taught for a week at the Maine College of Art in Portland. In our group, we had approximately twelve students: some in college and graduate school, others who were teachers themselves, and still others who, like Thirst's Rick Valicenti, defied easy categorization and simply wanted to spend a week working on a project. Our students ended up making a book, one single book — remarkable in and of itself since it required a dozen individual personalities to achieve editorial concensus, not to mention agreeing on the small caps. But this wasn't enough for some, like Rick, who made something every day — some of it collaboratively but all of it constantly, tirelessly, enthusiastically. He took pictures. He made books. He barely slept.

And he drew.

Which brings us back to Cartier-Bresson and his companion, the ever-present sketchbook. It is true that art is not, and will never be the same as design. But to the extent that the process of making something is what we do, how many of us actually carry around a sketchbook? Not a digital camera, not collaged fragments of our daily expeditions, but an actual pencil and paper? Matisse once said that drawing is not an exercise of particular dexterity, but a means of expressing intimate feelings and moods. Cartier-Bresson would have agreed (so might Valicenti) and so, perhaps, should we. To draw is to observe and record, but also to imagine, to envision and to originate — activities that oblige us to summon all of our faculties: mental and intellectual; emotional and visual. In this context, lucid cogitation is only just the beginning.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , Media, Obituaries, Photography

Comments [4]

Jessica, that was beautiful, insightful and inspiring. Thank you. Thank you.
adrian gonzales

Henri Catier-Bresson my all time favorite photographer.

Along with Moholy-Nagy, Duane Michaels, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and Roland Freeman.

Without question, Cartier Bresson was the model many ascribed.

Jay Maisel, who studied Graphic Design under Leon Friend at the Lincoln High School of the Arts. And later turned to Photograhy as his vehicle of expression. Remind me of Cartier-Bresson. Referencing Jay Maisel's roots in drawing and painting.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a Painter First and Foremost. Utilized the fundamental Principles of Design and Composition to express his craft. (photography)

Design is a process which all art, craft, and production emanate.

Design is a PLAN, a PURPOSE or INTENT. (Idea) Usually in the service of Commerce.

Design is an Intellectual Activity with a craft aspect to it.
Craft is Dexterous and deals with Production.

Designer(s) Orchestrate and Delegate to Compensate.

Design is a collaborative process. Which involves Ideation. The planning of something to be Executed.

Art 99.9 % of the time is a solo act. Which involves the manual dexterity of perfecting a skill.
Usually in the service of self exhileration and euphoria.

Incorporated in the craft aspect of Design are the Principles and Elements of Composition.

Which are, line; shape; value; texture; color; which are the elements of design. The priciples of organization in design are: harmony; rythm; repetition; variety; balance; movement; proportion; dominance; economy; space; to provide unity.

As a Trained Illustrator enrolled in a Professional Advertising Art Program at fourteen years of age.

I've drawn all my life. In all sincerity, the computer has made me lazy.
Notwithstanding, I'm a Pack-Rat. And never throw away anything. Harboring drawings
from elementary, junior high, and high school.

My sketch pads are the back of envelopes and junk-mail.

I was only going to share these with my Mentor Michael B.

How selfish of me. I'll share them with the World.

Please load this link into your browser.

Simply Breathtaking and stunning.



Ruscha's use of the camera was to exploit what he believed was its deadpan objectivity. No doubt this was an aspect of his "cognitive lucidity" (or, I would prefer, intentionality), but to compare Ruscha's work to Bresson's work seems a bit reductive, if not ahistorical. There was no "decisive moment" for Ruscha, because, as his work suggests, all moments are objectively the same.
Michael J. Golec

I tend to think that the 'decisive moment' in a handy way extended the photography's boundries of 'beauty' in an image, with the use of time and circumstance affecting often everyday environments. This would be help the public swallow the later work of Eggleston, Robert Adams et al, which removed the 'moment' and let the 'decisive environment' stand out. Also emphasised by Eggleston the 'decisive colour' and light of the moment that fueled the growth of colour photography. Eggleson's "Democratic Forest" concept became a trusim as strong as Cartier-Bresson's moment many years earlier, and both are linked in a way.

Jobs | July 23