March 6th, 2015
In Memoriam: Albert Maysles
In memory of legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died today at age 88, we revisit his tribute to friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, originally published in Aperture magazine issue 191, Summer 2008.
This famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson—of Matisse with white doves—is my favorite. Cartier-Bresson was an old friend whom I met through Bruce Davidson. When Bruce invited us both to his studio, he asked me to bring along a projector and a scene from one of my films. The scene I had filmed was of a train coming into the Moscow station, from which trains go off to Siberia. As the train pulled in alongside the empty platform I stood with my camera mounted with an extreme 300mm telephoto lens. As I began shooting—because it was illegal to film in train stations in the USSR—an angry Soviet army officer came rushing over to stop me. I grabbed him by the back of the neck and stuck his eye to the viewfinder. At that moment, with the camera still rolling, the train came to a stop and hundreds of people came rushing out of the doors. With a big smile on his face, the officer congratulated me. He had been converted. When Henri saw the film he too got excited, and leapt up and applauded.
Some years later when I was about to get married, Henri offered any one of his photographs as a wedding present. I chose this Matisse photograph. To me it was as if Henri were expressing in his own way Robert Capa’s advice to get close—get very close. Henri’s special talent in getting close was to stay far enough away to include the doves, which brought the viewer that much closer to the peaceful and sublime nature of Matisse himself—so superior to a shot of Matisse’s face in isolation.
And so film and the photograph brought me that much closer to both Matisse and Henri.