‘Donegal. Tory Island’ (1995) © Magnum Photos
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The camera is a frontier in itself; you can only get to the other side by forgetting yourself, momentarily,” wrote Martine Franck, the Belgian documentary photographer, in correspondence with the art critic John Berger in 1998. She was the second wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose towering reputation overshadowed Franck’s innovations.

But a display of works at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson’s new space, opening in Paris’s Marais district this month, puts Franck in the spotlight. The foundation is relocating from the Montparnasse district, where it launched in 2003. At 900 sq metres, the Marais building will be around three times the size of the former one, enabling the foundation to double its number of annual exhibitions from three to six over time.

“This project has long been in the pipeline, ever since the opening of the Montparnasse venue, which was due to be temporary and lasted 15 years!” says François Hébel, director of the foundation. “The space is so much more flexible. We can combine works from the collection with displays dedicated to guest photographers.”

The retrospective of Franck’s works, curated by the foundation’s artistic director, Agnès Sire, has also been awaiting an opportune moment. “We began working on the [extensive] edit of Martine’s pictures before she died [in 2012],” Sire says. “She was modest and never wanted to be in the front row, but had such tenacity and grace.”

Franck’s eloquent images give an impression of being fleeting, despite the care with which they were created. One of her most famous shots is a swimming pool scene at Le Brusc in Provence, taken in 1976, in which three figures are dotted around a scorched terrace like abstract sculptures. Her photograph of Leonor Fini at her Paris home in 1981 shows the artist with eyes ablaze, as alert as the cat sitting alongside her.

A long-running project documenting the elderly in France — “Le Temps de Vieillir” (“A Time to Grow Old”, 1980) — reflects her empathy for marginalised groups. Franck also focused on women’s rights in the 1970s and 1980s, making her something of a quiet revolutionary.

The writer Louise Baring (who was also Franck’s sister-in-law) produced a monograph dedicated to Franck in 2007. “Her work was devoid of any kind of artifice, and her presence was always unthreatening. People knew instinctively they could trust her on some level,” Baring says, adding that Franck’s art history background — she attended the Ecole du Louvre in Paris — meant she was adept at composing images.

Baring also points out that Cartier-Bresson encouraged Franck and never attempted to sideline her. When she died, Franck’s archives were bequeathed to the foundation, but she requested that its name should not be changed. It was, as Sire writes in the exhibition catalogue, “A last, lucid act of discretion by a woman who knew how to pursue her art ‘in the shadow of a great tree’, as she would joke.”

The Magnum photographic co-operative was integral to both photographers: Cartier-Bresson co-founded it in 1947, and Franck joined in the early 1980s. Keeping alive this postwar humanist tradition of reportage photography is key.

‘Painting by Paul Delvaux, Grand Palais, Paris’ (1972), both by Martine Franck © Magnum Photos

The privately run foundation also generates revenue from touring exhibitions and admission fees. A small part of the collection has been “legally designated as saleable,” Hébel explains, the purpose being to fund the development of the foundation. “We are definitely not a commercial gallery,” he insists.

The new hub in the Marais is an opportunity for photographers to re-assess the legacy of the Magnum photographers. But keeping them relevant is a challenge. “Photography is in constant evolution,” Hébel says.

One way of shedding new light on Cartier-Bresson is by displaying the archive’s “pearls” — undiscovered nuggets from its vast holdings, which number 50,000 original prints, more than 200,000 negatives and contact sheets, as well as 4,500 letters (the archive can be viewed by appointment). “The material was stored in four locations around Paris; now it’s under one roof,” Hébel says.

One such pearl is Cartier-Bresson’s self-portraits, of which there are only three (he hated having his photo taken). An image from 1933, taken when he was 25, shows the bottom half of his body, his face out of frame, lying on a wall during a trip to Italy with Fini and friends.

The foundation’s contemporary programme is another draw; a show of South African photographer Guy Tillim, who chronicles the “colonialist narrative” in African capitals, opens in February. “Our duty is also to show photographers other than Cartier-Bresson and Franck, and help contemporary production, thanks to the Prix Henri Cartier-Bresson sponsored by Fondation d’entreprise Hermès,” Hébel says.

Whether the new generation considers Cartier-Bresson important is a matter for debate. His style of reportage is certainly more formal than that of millennial photographers saturated in social media. Jack Latham, a 28-year-old Brighton-based photographer, says: “I think it’s very easy to dismiss his work now. But I do find myself going through it to appreciate the foundation on which many photographers have built their careers.” An anonymous New York photographer, however, says that Cartier-Bresson’s pictures may become less relevant in the digital age.

Other emerging photographers acknowledge their debt to their predecessor, whose constant companion was a Leica camera. The Paris-based documentary photographer Alban Grosdidier, 28, says: “One thing that’s not discussed as much I’d expect is Cartier-Bresson’s impact on contemporary framing. I honestly think his framing became directly, or indirectly, a reference point for almost all documentary photographers. But today it’s not about documentary, it’s about news.”

The young photographers I speak to seem largely unaware of Franck’s contribution to the development of documentary photography. Anne Lacoste, a former curator at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, where the Franck show tours next year, says that “her timeless images swim against the tide of the sensational”. All the more reason for Franck’s timely retrospective.

November 6-February 10 henricartierbresson.org

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