Remembering the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective Exhibition at the MOMA.
HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON AT THE MOMA Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) is one of the most original, accomplished, influential, and beloved figures in the history of photography. His inventive work of the early 1930s helped define the creative potential of modern photography, and his uncanny ability to capture life on the run made his work synonymous with “the decisive moment”—the title of his first major book. After World War II (most of which he spent as a prisoner of war) and his first museum show (at MoMA in 1947), he joined Robert Capa and others in founding the Magnum photo agency, which enabled photojournalists to reach a broad audience through magazines such as Life while retaining control over their work. In the decade following the war, Cartier-Bresson produced major bodies of photographic reportage on India and Indonesia at the time of independence, China during the revolution, the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, the United States during the postwar boom, and Europe as its old cultures confronted modern realities. For more than twenty-five years, he was the keenest observer of the global theater of human affairs—and one of the great portraitists of the twentieth century. MoMA’s retrospective, the first in the United States in three decades, surveys Cartier-Bresson’s entire career, with a presentation of about three hundred photographs, mostly arranged thematically and supplemented with periodicals and books. The exhibition travels to The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century April 11–June 28, 2010 The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Gallery, sixth floor
Cartier-Bresson's first Leica
Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) was a French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. He was an early adopter of 35 mm format, and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the "street photography" or "real life reportage" style that has influenced generations of photographers who followed.
Early life Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, the oldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. His mother's family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy, where he spent part of his childhood. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris, near the Europe Bridge. They were able to provide him with financial support to develop his interests in photography in a more independent manner than many of his contemporaries. Cartier-Bresson also sketched in his spare time. He described his family as "socialist Catholics".
As a young boy, Cartier-Bresson owned a Box Brownie, using it for taking holiday snapshots; he later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was raised in a traditional French bourgeois fashion, required to address his parents using the formal vous rather than the familiar tu. His father assumed that his son would take up the family business, but the youth was strong-willed and upset by this prospect.
He attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students to attend Lycée Condorcet. The proctor caught him reading a book by Rimbaud or Mallarmé, and reprimanded him: "Let's have no disorder in your studies!" Cartier-Bresson said, "He used the informal 'tu'-which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on: 'You're going to read in my office.' Well, that wasn't an offer he had to repeat."
Studies painting After unsuccessfully trying to learn music, as a boy Cartier-Bresson was introduced to oil painting by his uncle Louis, a gifted painter. "Painting has been my obsession from the time that my 'mythical father', my father's brother, led me into his studio during the Christmas holidays in 1913, when I was five years old. There I lived in the atmosphere of painting; I inhaled the canvases." Uncle Louis' painting lessons were cut short, when he died in World War I.
In 1927, at the age of 19, Cartier-Bresson entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. Lhote's ambition was to integrate the Cubists' approach to reality with classical artistic forms; he wanted to link the French classical tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David to Modernism. Cartier-Bresson also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche. During this period, he read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels and Marx. Lhote took his pupils to the Louvre to study classical artists and to Parisian galleries to study contemporary art. Cartier-Bresson's interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissance—of masterpieces of Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Cartier-Bresson often regarded Lhote as his teacher of "photography without a camera."
Experiments with photography Although Cartier-Bresson gradually began to be restless under Lhote's "rule-laden" approach to art, his rigorous theoretical training would later help him to confront and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe, but each had a different view on the direction photography should take. The photography revolution had begun: "Crush tradition! Photograph things as they are!" The Surrealist movement (founded in 1924) was a catalyst for this paradigm shift. Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. He met a number of the movement's leading protagonists, and was particularly drawn to the Surrealist movement's linking of the subconscious and the immediate to their work. The historian Peter Galassi explains:
The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton...approached the street: with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual...The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
Cartier-Bresson matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political environment. He was aware of the concepts and theories mentioned, but could not find a way of expressing this imaginatively in his paintings. He was very frustrated with his experiments and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works.
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied English, art and literature, and became bilingual. In 1930, stationed at Le Bourget, near Paris, he completed his mandatory service in the French Army. He remembered, "And I had quite a hard time of it, too, because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder."
Affair with Caresse Crosby In 1929, Cartier-Bresson's air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without a license. Cartier-Bresson met American expatriate Harry Crosby at Le Bourget, who persuaded the officer to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody for a few days. Finding their mutual interest in photography, and they spent their time together taking and printing pictures at Crosby's home, Le Moulin du Soleil (The Sun Mill), near Paris in Ermenonville, France.:163 Crosby later said Cartier-Bresson "looked like a fledgling, shy and frail, and mild as whey." Embracing the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse, Cartier-Bresson fell into an intense sexual relationship with her.
Escapes to Africa Two years after Harry Crosby committed suicide, Cartier-Bresson's affair ended in 1931 with Caresse Crosby, leaving him broken hearted. During his enlistment he had read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and decided to seek escape and adventure on the Côte d'Ivoire in French colonial Africa. About abandoning painting, he wrote, "I left Lhote's studio because I did not want to enter into that systematic spirit. I wanted to be myself. To paint and to change the world counted for more than everything in my life." He survived by shooting game and selling it to local villagers. From hunting, he learned methods which he later used in photography. On the Côte d'Ivoire, he contracted blackwater fever, which nearly killed him. While still feverish, he sent instructions to his grandfather for his own funeral, asking to be buried in Normandie, at the edge of the Eawy forest while Debussy's String Quartet was played. An uncle wrote back, "Your grandfather finds all that too expensive. It would be preferable that you return first." Although Cartier-Bresson took a portable camera (smaller than a Brownie Box) to Côte d'Ivoire, only seven photographs survived the tropics.
Turning from painting to photography Behind the Gare St. Lazare: one of Cartier-Bresson's most famous photographs, illustrating the 'decisive moment' concept which characterises much of his work Cartier-Bresson's first LeicaReturning to France, Cartier-Bresson recuperated in Marseille in late 1931 and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. He became inspired by a 1930 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, this captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive. Cartier-Bresson said:
The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street."
That photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant." He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye. The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. He enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography — the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He said, "I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to 'trap' life." Restless, he photographed in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. His photographs were first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934 in Mexico, he shared an exhibition with Manuel Alvarez Bravo. In the beginning, he did not photograph much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed there extensively.
In 1934 Cartier-Bresson met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin who was called "Chim" because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin later changed his name to David Seymour. The two had much in common culturally. Through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa. The three shared a studio in the early 1930s and Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson, "Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don't fidget. Get moving!"
Exhibits in United States Cartier-Bresson traveled to the United States in 1935 with an invitation to exhibit his work at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. He shared display space with fellow photographers Walker Evans and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Carmel Snow of Harper's Bazaar, gave him a fashion assignment, but he fared poorly since he had no idea how to direct or interact with the models. Nevertheless, Snow was the first American editor to publish Cartier-Bresson's photographs in a magazine. While in New York, he met photographer Paul Strand, who did camerawork for the Depression-era documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains.
Filmmaking When he returned to France, Cartier-Bresson applied for a job with renowned French film director Jean Renoir. He acted in Renoir's 1936 film Partie de campagne and in the 1939 La Règle du jeu, for which he played a butler and served as second assistant. Renoir made Cartier-Bresson act so he could understand how it felt to be on the other side of the camera. Cartier-Bresson also helped Renoir make a film for the Communist party on the 200 families, including his own, who ran France. During the Spanish civil war, Cartier-Bresson co-directed an anti-fascist film with Herbert Kline, to promote the Republican medical services.
Photojournalism start Cartier-Bresson's first photojournalist photos to be published came in 1937 when he covered the coronation of King George VI, for the French weekly Regards. He focused on the new monarch's adoring subjects lining the London streets, and took no pictures of the king. His photo credit read "Cartier", as he was hesitant to use his full family name.
Marriage In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married a Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. They lived in a fourth-floor servants' flat at in Paris at 19, rue Danielle Casanova, a large studio with a small bedroom, kitchen and bathroom where Cartier-Bresson developed film. Between 1937 and 1939 Cartier-Bresson worked as a photographer for the French Communists' evening paper, Ce Soir. With Chim and Capa, Cartier-Bresson was a leftist, but he did not join the French Communist party.
Service in World War II When World War II broke out in September 1939, he joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. During the Battle of France, in June 1940 at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains, he was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labor under the Nazis. As Cartier-Bresson put it, he was forced to perform "thirty-two different kinds of hard manual labor." He worked "as slowly and as poorly as possible." He twice tried and failed to escape from the prison camp, and was punished by solitary confinement. His third escape was successful and he hid on a farm in Touraine before getting false papers that allowed him to travel in France. In France, he worked for the underground, aiding other escapees and working secretly with other photographers to cover the Occupation and then the Liberation of France. In 1943, he dug up his beloved Leica camera, which he had buried in farmland near Vosges. At the end of the war he was asked by the American Office of War Information to make a documentary, Le Retour (The Return) about returning French prisoners and displaced persons.
Toward the end of the War, rumors had reached America that Cartier-Bresson had been killed. His film on returning war refugees (released in the United States in 1947) spurred a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) instead of the posthumous show that MoMA had been preparing. The show debuted in 1947 together with the publication of his first book, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall wrote the book's text.
Forms Magnum Photos In spring 1947, Cartier-Bresson, with Robert Capa, David Seymour, and George Rodger founded Magnum Photos. Capa's brainchild, Magnum was a cooperative picture agency owned by its members. The team split photo assignments among the members. Rodger, who had quit Life in London after covering World War II, would cover Africa and the Middle East. Chim, who spoke most European languages, would work in Europe. Cartier-Bresson would be assigned to India and China. Vandivert, who had also left Life, would work in America, and Capa would work anywhere that had an assignment. Maria Eisner managed the Paris office and Rita Vandivert, Vandivert's wife, managed the New York office and became Magnum's first president.
Magnum's mission was to "feel the pulse" of the times and some of its first projects were People Live Everywhere, Youth of the World, Women of the World and The Child Generation. Magnum aimed to use photography in the service of humanity, and provided arresting, widely viewed images.
The Decisive Moment Cartier-Bresson's, The Decisive Moment, the 1952 US edition of Images à la sauvette. The book contains the term "the decisive moment" now synonymous with Cartier-Bresson: "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment."Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948 and the last (1949) stage of the Chinese Civil War. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing, as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he went on to Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where he documented the gaining of independence from the Dutch.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book Images à la sauvette, whose English edition was titled The Decisive Moment. It included a portfolio of 126 of his photos from the East and the West. The book's cover was drawn by Henri Matisse. For his 4,500-word philosophical preface, Cartier-Bresson took his keynote text from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz: "Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" ("There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment"). Cartier-Bresson applied this to his photographic style. He said: "Photographier: c'est dans un même instant et en une fraction de seconde reconnaître un fait et l'organisation rigoureuse de formes perçues visuellement qui expriment et signifient ce fait" ("Photography is simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact").
Both titles came from publishers. Tériade, the Greek-born French publisher whom Cartier-Bresson idolized,[peacock term] gave the book its French title, Images à la Sauvette, which can loosely be translated as "images on the run" or "stolen images." Dick Simon of Simon & Schuster came up with the English title The Decisive Moment. Margot Shore, Magnum's Paris bureau chief, did the English translation of Cartier-Bresson's French preface.
"Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."
Cartier-Bresson held his first exhibition in France at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre in 1955.
Later career Capa died in 1954 after stepping on a land mine in Indo-China, and Chim was shot in Egypt two years later. Cartier-Bresson's photography took him to many places on the globe—China, Mexico, Canada, the United States, India, Japan, Soviet Union and many other countries. He became the first Western photographer to photograph "freely" in the post-war Soviet Union. Cartier-Bresson withdrew as a principal of Magnum (which still distributed his photographs) in 1966 to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes. In 1967, he was divorced from his first wife of 30 years, Ratna "Elie". In 1968, he began to turn away from photography and return to his passion for drawing and painting. He admitted that perhaps he had said all he could through photography. He married Magnum photographer Martine Franck, thirty years younger than himself, in 1970. The couple had a daughter, Mélanie, in May 1972.
Cartier-Bresson retired from photography in the early 1970s and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait; he said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out. He returned to drawing and painting. After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through photography, he said, "All I care about these days is painting—photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing." He held his first exhibition of drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York in 1975.
Death and legacy Cartier-Bresson died in Montjustin (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France) on August 3, 2004, at 95. No cause of death was announced. He was buried in the cemetery of Montjustin, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France. He was survived by his wife, Martine Franck, and daughter, Mélanie.
Cartier-Bresson spent more than three decades on assignment for Life and other journals. He traveled without bounds, documenting some of the great upheavals of the 20th century — the Spanish civil war, the liberation of Paris in 1944, the 1968 student rebellion in Paris, the fall of the Kuomintang in China to the communists, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Berlin Wall, and the deserts of Egypt. And along the way he paused to document portraits of Camus, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound and Giacometti. But many of his most renowned photographs, such as Behind the Gare St. Lazare, are of ordinary daily life, seemingly unimportant moments captured and then gone.
Cartier-Bresson was a photographer who hated to be photographed and treasured his privacy above all. Photographs of Cartier-Bresson do exist, but they are scant. When he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he held a paper in front of his face to avoid being photographed.
In a Charlie Rose interview in 2000, Cartier-Bresson noted that it wasn't necessarily that he hated to be photographed, but it was that he was embarrassed by the notion of being photographed for being famous.
Cartier-Bresson believed that what went on beneath the surface was nobody's business but his own. He did recall that he once confided his innermost secrets to a Paris taxi driver, certain that he would never meet the man again.
In 2003, he created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation with his wife and daughter to preserve and share his legacy.
Technique Cartier-Bresson exclusively used Leica 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with normal 50 mm lenses or occasionally a wide-angle for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera's chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white films and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph almost by stealth to capture the events. No longer bound by a huge 4×5 press camera or an awkward medium format twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called "the velvet hand [and] the hawk's eye." He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as "[i]mpolite...like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand."
He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Indeed, he emphasized that his prints were not cropped by insisting they include the first millimetre or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area resulting, after printing, in a black border around the positive image.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color. He disliked developing or making his own prints. He said: "I've never been interested in the process of photography, never, never. Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing."
He started the tradition of testing new camera lenses by taking photographs of ducks in urban parks. He never published the images but referred to them as 'my only superstition' as he considered it a 'baptism' of the lens.
Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the art world's most unassuming personalities. He disliked publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Although he took many famous portraits, his own face was little known to the world at large (which presumably had the advantage of allowing him to work on the street in peace). He dismissed others' applications of the term "art" to his photographs, which he thought were merely his gut reactions to moments in time that he had happened upon.
The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression... . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.
MoMA: Cartier-Bresson, Visionary By John G. Morris in Vanity Fair More than half a century ago, New York’s Museum of Modern Art planned a "posthumous" exhibition of photographs by the then-little-known French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. At the time, MoMA’s first curators of photography, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, believed their friend had died in World War II. Cartier-Bresson, it turned out, was very much alive - so alive, in fact, that he would become the most influential photographer of the 20th century, which he outlived by four years. And with MoMA leading the way, his influence seems likely to continue well into the 21st. “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” an audaciously titled exhibition of the work of HCB - as he is known in the shorthand of the art world - opens to the public on April 11. Adroitly selected by MoMA’s chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, the show’s 300 prints offer fresh insights into the character and style of one of the most creative figures in modern art history.As a young man, Cartier-Bresson never intended to be a photographer, but a painter; photographers were not then considered artists. He studied under the Cubist painter Andre Lhote, but did not think much of his own early creations. So, after acquiring a Leica in 1931, HCB went off to see the world. This gave him an opportunity to pursue a kind of visual anthropology in carefully composed images. I first met Henri at the Hotel Scribe in Paris one morning in early September 1944. The Germans had just left town. I had just arrived from London, where I had edited Robert Capa’s pictures of the D-Day landing for Life magazine. I had never been to Paris and was supposed to run the Life bureau there. Capa took pity on me: “I have a friend who will help you. He speaks English and knows his way around.” A young man with the look of a country squire was waiting at the hotel door, beside his bicycle. Off we went. Eight years later, a messenger from Simon & Schuster dropped off a big book at my Ladies’ Home Journal office in Rockefeller Center. The cover, a color drawing by Henri Matisse, disguised the contents inside: a book of 126 photographs by HCB. It was called The Decisive Moment - three words that were to inspire a generation of photojournalists. The following year Capa talked me into managing Magnum Photos, the international cooperative he’d founded in 1947 with his friends Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, and George Rodger. Now I would get to work closely with HCB, occasionally editing his contacts and selling his pictures to eager editors. At Holiday and Life, they affectionately called him Hank Carter. In the 1970s, HCB returned to his unrequited love for drawing. He claimed to have had it with photography, though he always carried a camera in a nearby satchel. Years later I wrote a card to Henri: “If you aren’t careful you are going to go down in history as a painter, not as a photographer.” His handwritten reply: “I’m just a jack-of-all trades.”
By HOLLAND COTTER in The New York Times. Published: April 8, 2010 Rarely has the phrase “man of the world” been more aptly applied than to the protean photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the subject of a handsome and large — though surely not anywhere near large enough — retrospective opening at the Museum of Modern Art on Sunday. For much of his long career as a photojournalist, which began in the 1930s and officially ended three decades before his death in 2004, Cartier-Bresson was compulsively on the move. By plane, train, bus, car, bicycle, rickshaw, horse and on foot, he covered the better part of five continents in a tangled, crisscrossing itinerary of arcs and dashes. In addition to being exhaustively mobile, he was widely connected. Good-looking, urbane, the rebellious child of French haute bourgeois privilege, he networked effortlessly, and had ready access to, and friendships with, the political and culture beau monde of his time. Nehru, Matisse, Jacqueline Kennedy, T .S. Eliot, Truman Capote, George Balanchine, Coco Chanel and Alberto Giacometti sat for portraits. And he created classic likenesses of them: the elderly Matisse in a dovecote of a studio; the wizened Giacometti caught in midstride like his sculptures; Capote with his amphibian stare; Chanel mummified in a suit of her own design. The third and crucial constant in his career was, of course, a camera: in Cartier-Bresson’s case, a hand-held Leica, as neat and sleek as a pistol. Whether he was traveling as a journalistic eye for hire or sauntering through Paris of an afternoon, the camera went too. He shot thousands upon thousands of rolls of film at 36 exposures a roll, meticulously numbering each roll before sending it off to be developed — a process he had no interest in — by magazines or photo agencies. (He was a founding member of the Magnum Photos cooperative in 1947.) Cartier-Bresson seldom saw his work until it was in print, and then sometimes had occasion to be appalled. Suffice it to say that the Modern’s display, with black-and-white prints (he hated color film), framed and hung against pristine white and gray walls, is a far remove from the hurly-burly magazine layouts in which many of these pictures first appeared. Cartier-Bresson’s dematerialized working method, so focused on the shutter moment, set a model for modern photojournalism, a field he basically invented. Equally influential was the way he approached that moment: with a Zen combination of alertness and patience that allowed him to be absorbed by unfolding events as they absorbed him. Some of these events were small and sweet: a man sailing over a puddle, lovers smooching, a kid zooming by on a bike. Others were huge. In 1945 he was in Germany to record the aftermath of World War II. (He had spent almost three years as a prisoner of war in German camps.) In 1948 he was in Shanghai when citizens were storming banks for gold in the last frantic days before Communist forces arrived. He witnessed the end of the British Raj. He photographed Gandhi just before he was assassinated, then documented the funeral. There’s some of all of this in the MoMA retrospective, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” organized by Peter Galassi, the museum’s chief curator of photography. The show unfolds in 13 thematic sections. All but the first are chronologically mixed, and the pictures in that opening section, almost all from the 1930s, are some of the freshest he ever made. He was in his 20s then. Raised in Paris, he had ambitions to be an artist. He studied with a painter who worked in a late-Cubist style, but hung out in the Surrealist circle around André Breton, soaking up leftist politics and heterodox aesthetics. In 1930, with his painting prospects looking dim (Gertrude Stein had dropped a discouraging word about his talent), he picked up a camera. An early piece at MoMA, a 1932 shot of a man passed out on a Paris street, might be taken as a formative experiment of street photography. And Surrealism naturally had its impact: his shots of light-bleached plazas and factory walls are pure De Chirico. After seeing photos of Africa by an older colleague, Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963), Cartier-Bresson headed there in 1930, beginning a lifetime of perpetual motion. By middecade, he had gone from Africa back to France, then to Italy, Spain, Mexico and the United States. Many of his signature works are from this period: Mexico City prostitutes squeezing through narrow windows; a Spanish child seemingly gripped by an ecstatic fit (he was looking up at a ball thrown out of camera range); and a quartet of stout and at-ease French picnickers lounging by a river. He was given gallery shows, though he already knew he wasn’t making gallery art. He insisted that he wasn’t making art at all. His photographs were — what? A species of social commentary, journalistic illustration, diary keeping? They were certainly ephemeral and unprecious; he meant them for mass publication, for practical use. The brilliantly composed picnic scene was created as part of a campaign to win more vacation time for workers. The experience of World War II confirmed his view of photography as an instrument for visualizing social change. And it fulfills this role macrocosmically in several of his magazine photo essays, no two alike in format. In 1958 he returned to China to document Mao’s Great Leap Forward in a pictorial series that is thorough without being revealing. He was under constant watch, and the images — upbeat and uptight — reflect this. But two photo series that emerged from trips to the Soviet Union, in the 1950s and ’70s, have a different effect. They have distinctive individual moments: workers in bulky coveralls clowning and dancing under Lenin’s portrait; a somber Georgian family taking a roadside meal near an Orthodox monastery. But those moments form a whole: a big, perplexingly unresolved portrait of the Soviet Union, at once shabby and mighty, caught between a mania for progress and the pull of ancient tradition. Tradition, wherever found, was dear to Cartier-Bresson’s heart, and apparently grew more so over the years. In the 1950s and ’60s, he seemed to view it as being increasingly under assault from aspects of modern culture — global commerce, the mass media — that he otherwise found rich and stimulating, precisely because they were modern. His work softened. Shots of everyday life in France sometimes took on a travel brochure glow. (He gained an international reputation for being the most French of French photographers.) And images that might have been conceived as emblems of cultural excess (shots of St. Tropez, Le Mans, Club Med) felt easy and obvious. Mr. Galassi has done well to gather works of various dates in each section, thus avoiding a stark comparison between early and late career. (Cartier-Bresson gave up photography, at least officially, in the mid-’70s in favor of drawing.) Chronological blending also helps to create a tonal balance throughout the show between coolness and charm. What’s missing? Cumulative intensity. It’s present in isolation: in the throbbing 1946 shot of a mother and son reunited and weeping on a New York City dock, and in the exceptionally large, ashen print that opens the exhibition, a 1962 shot of a funeral in Paris for protesters killed in a demonstration for Algerian independence. But in the show over all, surprisingly little tension builds; ideas and emotions are diffuse. Along these lines, it is interesting to compare, as Mr. Galassi suggests in the catalog, Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of the United States with those taken at roughly the same time by another European visitor, Robert Frank. True, the two men were operating under quite different conditions. Cartier-Bresson visited America sporadically over several decades. Usually on assignment, he had to deal with editors, tight schedules and deadlines. Mr. Frank, supported by a Guggenheim grant, was on his own clock. He explored the country thoroughly in a few marathon campaigns geared to a self-assigned project, the creation of a photographic book called “The Americans.” Mr. Frank was his own editor; he controlled — and wanted to control — every detail of his product. He spent a full year whittling down thousands of negatives into a fixed sequence of 83 prints. In that sequence each image assumed a singular force; together, they were morally and emotionally explosive. Even with Mr. Galassi’s astute groupings, there are no such explosions at MoMA. Should there be? Are we talking about an impassible line that separates photojournalism (Cartier-Bresson) from art (Mr. Frank)? No, to both questions. I think we’re fundamentally dealing with temperaments and preferences. Mr. Frank’s preference was to compress, cut away, create weight; Cartier-Bresson’s was to keep moving, shooting, taking in more and more and more. Forced to choose between the two modes, I would probably side with concision and density; though there are endless things to be said for the capacious, in-the-now eye and the sheer joie de vivre that were — are — Cartier-Bresson’s pioneering and sustaining strengths. At MoMA, he is so much and so everywhere that he appears to be nowhere. But while slipping from our grasp, he keeps handing us the world.
“Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” runs from Sunday through June 28 at the Museum of Modern Art; moma.org. It travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 24 to Oct. 3); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Oct. 30 to Jan. 30); and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Feb. 19 to May 15).
An Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective. by Peter Schjeldahl April 19, 2010 in The New Yorker Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was a taker of great photographs. Some three hundred of them make for an almost unendurably majestic retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, from his famous portly puddle-jumper of 1932 (“Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris”) to views of Native Americans in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1971, one of his last visual essays as the globe-trotting heavyweight champion of photojournalism. (Thereafter, he mostly rested his cameras and devoted himself to drawing—sensitively though not terribly well—in the vein of his friend Alberto Giacometti.) Nearly every picture displays the classical panache—the fullness, the economy—of a painting by Poussin. Any half-dozen of them would have engraved their author’s name in history. Resistance to the work is futile, if quality is our criterion, but inevitable, I think, on other grounds.
Cartier-Bresson has the weakness of his strength: an Apollonian elevation that subjugates life to an order of things already known, if never so well seen. He said that the essence of his art was “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Too often, the “significance” feels platitudinous, even as its expression dazzles. Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans” (1958) treated subjects akin to many in the older photographer’s work, put it harshly but justly: “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” The problem of Cartier-Bresson’s art is the conjunction of aesthetic classicism and journalistic protocol: timeless truth and breaking news. He rendered a world that, set forth at MOMA by the museum’s chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, richly satisfies the eye and the mind, while numbing the heart. Cartier-Bresson was the eldest of five children; his mother was a cotton merchant’s daughter and his father a farmer’s son, who became a wealthy thread manufacturer. He had “a nearly feminine beauty,” Galassi writes in the show’s catalogue, “marked by fine features, blue eyes, blonde hair, and rosy cheeks.” Headstrong, he declined to follow in his father’s footsteps. After a lavishly cultivated childhood, Cartier-Bresson left the august Lycée Condorcet when he was eighteen, determined to paint. He was encouraged by Proust’s friend the society portraitist Jacques-Émile Blanche, and studied under the post-Cubist artist and rigorous pedagogue André Lhote, whose emphasis on the rules of classical composition proved a lasting influence. He hobnobbed with Surrealists, frequented brothels, embraced Communism. Blanche wrote an affectionate burlesque of the young man who had “the air of a girl in pajamas” and preached social revolution “at the Splendide, before a very cold magnum of champagne.” (He also introduced him to Gertrude Stein, who, Galassi writes, “looked at his paintings and advised him he would do better to join the family business.”) In 1929, Cartier-Bresson began his year of compulsory military service with, he said, a rifle in one hand and Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the other. In 1931, he fled an unhappy love affair with a woman in Paris to Africa, where he roamed for a year and began taking pictures. (His lover had been a photography enthusiast.) Recuperating in Marseilles from a nearly lethal case of blackwater fever, he acquired a Leica and gave himself over to camera work in a Surrealist spirit, alert for odd events on city streets. He said he suddenly realized “that photography could reach eternity through the moment.” The short form of that insight is the English title of his best-known book, “The Decisive Moment” (1952). (In French, it is “Images à la Sauvette”—roughly, “images on the fly,” with an implication of rascality.) A regular at hunting parties during his youth—besides playing a servant in his friend Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” Cartier-Bresson served as the offscreen gunman for the film’s massacre of rabbits—he now applied a hunter’s instincts to his art. He blackened the shiny parts of his diminutive camera, to keep it inconspicuous, as—“feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce,” he said—he stalked epiphanies in Paris, London, Madrid, and Mexico City, among other places, in the nineteen-thirties. But form determines content in even the most spontaneous of his street shots. Let one tour de force stand for many: “Valencia, Spain” (1933), which finds a boy in a strangely balletic pose against a battered wall, his eyes mysteriously raised (following the flight of a ball, which we don’t see). The subject piques and charms, but what makes the picture great is the gorgeousness of the wall, with its weary testimony to times long past. The hallmark of Cartier-Bresson’s genius is less in what he photographed than in where he placed himself to photograph it, incorporating peculiarly eloquent backgrounds and surroundings. His shutter-click climaxes an artful scurry for the perfect point of view. This made him a natural for photojournalism, whose subjects, their “significance” prejudged, unfold unpredictably in space and time. In 1934, he met the photographer David Szymin, known as Chim, who introduced him to a Hungarian colleague, Endre Friedmann. Friedmann, who soon changed his name to Robert Capa, urged Cartier-Bresson away from fine art and into the booming field of news photography. “Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear,” he recalled Capa advising him. “Don’t fidget. Get moving!” In 1937, Cartier-Bresson joined the staff of Ce Soir, a Communist daily, and covered the coronation of King George VI—turning his lens away from the pomp to the attending crowds. He was still a loyal fellow-traveller as late as 1959, when Life published his fawning shots of workers, peasants, students, and soldiers gladly engaged in Mao’s Great Leap Forward. His eye was singular, but his attitudes were standard issue: his road-tour typifyings of Americans reek of condescension. (Robert Frank countered that view of us.) Having joined the French Army in 1939, Cartier-Bresson was captured by the Germans, in 1940, and spent three years in prison camps, finally escaping on his third try. While an evidently unhounded fugitive, he travelled in France, taking portraits of Camus, Matisse, Bonnard, and other notables. (His portrait work is magnificent to a fault, marmoreally elegant. No one smiles—except Capa, at a racetrack in 1953, infectiously gloating over betting slips held like a hand of cards.) In 1945, he made a film for the United States Office of War Information, “The Return,” about the repatriation of liberated prisoners and displaced persons in Europe. That project yielded his dramatic shot of a female collaborator being denounced—and hit, though it’s not quite apparent—by a woman she betrayed, as an interrogator calmly takes notes. Work brought Cartier-Bresson to New York, where, in 1947, he became a co-founder of the Magnum agency, with Chim and Capa. He then quickened the always brisk pace of his travels, popping up in China for the Communist Revolution and in India for the end of the Raj. (In a secretly funny coup, he caught a starchy Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, as his wife shared a laugh with Jawaharlal Nehru, with whom she was rumored to be having an affair.) Mural-size maps of the world introduce the MOMA show, with colored lines tracing the photographer’s dizzyingly numerous peregrinations, including jaunts to Russia, Mongolia, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Japan. This suggests a novel measurement of artistic worth: mileage. It seems relevant only to the glamour quotient—a cult, practically—of Cartier-Bresson’s persona, pointing up what seems to me most resistible in his work. He developed little, in any sense. His exposed film went to labs; juxtaposed prints of the boy in Valencia, toned softly in the early thirties and sharply in the late sixties, evince changing fashions in commercial printing. Opulent blacks and whites suggest a house style of the Cartier-Bresson Foundation, in Paris, which provided most of the prints in the show. In creative approach, Cartier-Bresson indeed carried Surrealism in his heart, playing specific appearances against general ideas, as in crowd shots that discover spiky personalities amid collective passions. His strongest works, for me, are precisely those which take playfulness, or leisure, as their subject, from his canonical shot of workers picnicking by a pond, in 1938, to bikinied Club Med lunchers on Corsica, in 1969. An aesthete and a sensualist, Cartier-Bresson is authoritative, and even profound, in all matters and manners of pleasure. The consummate ease of such work resonates with his attractively reticent remark that photography is “a marvelous profession while it remains a modest one.” But that self-immunizing stance palls on the occasions of historic tumult and human suffering that presented Cartier-Bresson, always and only, with chances to achieve beautiful and yet more beautiful pictures. ♦