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.