For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously…
~Henri Cartier-Bresson

Laden with an inborn visual/spatial nature (a decided southpaw), I have an admitted obsession with photography. This love may seem incongruous given the lack of food images on A Lay Cook’s Musings. The inconsistency was again brought to mind by a conversation with a friend and then more recently with the opening of an exhibition of the revered 20th century photographer: Henri Cartier-Bresson. Currently at New York’s MoMA is an exhibit entitled The Modern Century which is the first retrospective of Cartier-Bresson in the states for three decades. The exhibition later travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

To pretend to canvas the artistic life of this complicated and intensely private pioneer would be futile in this limited space. Formally trained as an oil painter and devotee of literature and philsophy, Cartier-Bresson was influenced by the surrealist movement which had a rapacious appetite for photography. He ultimately switched from brush to camera and captured searing images across continents and countries for decades.  Around the beginning of World War II, Cartier-Bresson was captured and held in a German prisoner of war camp for three years before he escaped in 1943. To the chagrin of the outside world Cartier-Bresson was presumed dead, and ironically MOMA was preparing a memorial exhibition for him. Thankfully, he emerged. After the war, along with the venerable Robert Capa and others he founded Magnum, a photographers’ cooperative which enabled photojournalists to reach a broad audience through periodicals such as Life magazine while still retaining some control over their work. To name a few, Cartier-Bresson photographed wars, civil unrest, urban landscapes, couples, overs, children, life…and was an accomplished portrait artist. His body of work included candids of Henri Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gandhi, Albert Camus, Truman Capote, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Jeanne Moreau, and Susan Sontag. He formally stopped shooting in the ’70s to devote his efforts to drawing, but still quietly continued to take photographs until the end of his life.

Cartier-Bresson reputedly refused to crop or manipulate his photographs, instead printing the whole negative. There were even two rubber stamps used on his press prints with Magnum. One warned that the photo should not be altered by cropping while the other cautioned that the image should not be used in a way that violated his craft’s context. His instinctive sense of proportion meant that he rarely, if ever, would even need to crop or alter a print. In order to assess shape and composition, he would even eye proofs upside down. How each Cartier-Bresson photograph is a full frame just as it originally emerged from one of his beloved 35mm rangefinder Leicas just stuns.

Cartier-Bresson possessed an uncanny lucid eye, capturing vital moments which were framed with exquisite visual architecture. His subject was culture and about how the landscape of human theater was shaped. He had an innate sense of composition, gained through his training as a two dimensional artist coupled with acute interpersonal insight. Sometimes Cartier-Bresson’s work is intensely penetrating, while in other pieces he is more subtle, charming, playful. No matter the genre though, sensibility, humanity and candor coalesce in his arresting images.

Now, you would think that this retrospect of the maestro’s work would entice me to start posting cuisine photographs on the site. To the contrary, it furthers my leaning that overly interlarding often banal step-by-steps on food sites is not always comme il faut as some may assume or assert. Their overuse sometimes results in a manicured, lustrous, primped food fashion look—preset and preordained in a picture book way. Sort of the lust of the eyes — glossy food porn. Do your favored fine dining establishments, whether opulent or informal, present menus portraying shiny images of the prep or the finished product?

By no means is this some indictment of all food site photos as they often are enticing and do serve culinary purposes. But, as was touched upon in a post here earlier last year, there seem to be unrecognized limitations to food show and advantages to food tell. Apparently, I remain steadfastly irresolute and forever irrevelant on this one.

I never could ascertain Cartier-Bresson’s favored meals, but seem to recall a spirited interview with Charlie Rose years ago where they shared some cognac and another chat where they split a bottle of wine. So, please pardon my assumptions in choosing this appropriately iconic French fare. (For all I know, he detested garlic and found chicken unpalatable).

POULET MISTRAL (CHICKEN WITH FORTY GARLICS)

1 3 to 4 lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed

1/4 C or so cognac or brandy

40 or so plump, fresh garlic cloves
4 fresh thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
1/2 C dry white wine
1/2 C chicken stock or canned broth

Sliced baguette, toasted or grilled

Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper. Add olive oil, butter and garlic cloves a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium high heat. When fats are hot but not smoking, add chicken pieces skin side down and cook until skin turns an even, golden brown, about 5 minutes. If necessary, work in batches to achieve spacing. Turn pieces and brown them on other side for an additional 5 minutes, then remove to a tented platter or baking dish. Carefully add cognac, promptly light and allow to flame until it extinguishes in the pan.

Reduce heat to medium. Bury the garlic cloves under, around and between the chicken which has now been re-added to the mix to assure the cloves settle in one layer in the bottom of skillet. Strew the thyme sprigs and bay leaves in the pan as well. Sauté, shaking or stirring pan frequently, until garlic is lightly browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add wine and stock, scraping bottom of skillet to deglaze.

Cover and continue cooking until juices run clear when a thigh is pierced by a fork, about 12-15 minutes more. Discard thyme sprigs and bay leaves.

Serve chicken with garlic and pan juices. Squeeze the root end of the garlics’ papery husks and spread like butter onto the bread slices.

Pourboire: Should I repeat Julia Child’s mantra about browning? —
(1) The meat should be thoroughly dried
(2) The oil in the pan should be quite hot
(3) Do not crowd the meat in the pan

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