Cartier-Bresson’s Photo of a Smoking Albert Camus Stirs Up Controversy


posted Friday, March 30, 2012 at 4:06 PM EST

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of the Nobel Prize winning writer Albert Camus is one of Bresson's most famous images. Taken in 1947, the good folks of Montpellier, France decided to display it outside their new médiathèque, a multimedia library, in the center of the city.

Most everyone agreed that it was a wonderful way to honor one of France's most famous authors and one of their most famous photographers too. But, not everyone was pleased for there was a tousser -- a cough -- in the works; Camus’ inseparable, trademark Gauloises, hanging there so arrogantly from his lips.
Who would find fault with this classic portrait? A group of health minded Greens (the ecology party), that’s who. They demanded the removal of the photo, citing France's "Evin" law prohibiting “display, publicity, or advertising that explicitly or implicitly shows a person smoking.”  
They also argued that the médiathèque is across the street from a sports field frequented by runners and joggers and there is also a pharmacy nearby. In the complaint they pointed out the cruelty of inflicting the image on lung cancer victims going to the pharmacy for their medications.
Ironically, France is a country where hordes of people still smoke, despite cigarette packages imprinted with “SMOKING KILLS” in huge letters. I live about half an hour from Montpellier and most times of day, any number of my neighbors can be found standing on their doorsteps smoking and chatting on their phones.
Heard last week by the local administrative court, the independent public ombudsman, the rapporteur, for Montpellier opposed removing the photograph, arguing that it did not violate the Evin law as it hardly promoted smoking.
Supporters of the photo were more emphatic, calling the hearing itself a clear case of “censorship." Moreover, they argued the photograph had been shown in museums all over the world without issue. 
One supporter said that objecting to the photo was "Stalinism" and another pointed out that Camus' chain smoking was part of his persona, saying "One cannot imagine Sherlock Holmes without his pipe, or Humphrey Bogart without his cigarette." Later another told the newspapers that the magistrates "should go to Paris and look at the smokers depicted in the art at the Louvre."
After hearing both sides and probably hoping the whole thing would go away, the magistrates agreed to delay any decision until some unknown future date.

Maybe they just needed to smoke on it?