by Victor M. Cassidy
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) took photographs for publication in the periodicals of his time. He went from place to place, subject to subject, image to image, rarely exercising control—or seeking to exercise control--over what was done with his photographs.
Through much of his career, Cartier-Bresson dispatched exposed film to Magnum, his photo agency, which developed, edited, and sold the images. Sometimes he sent exposed film with captions to the magazine that had given him an assignment and did not see his pictures until they were published.
Taking the photograph was the main event for Cartier-Bresson. He was an observer whose primary subjects were social change and the responses of ordinary people to what was happening around them. Assigned in 1936 to cover the coronation of England’s King George VI, for example, he photographed crowds and onlookers, but not the King and Queen.
Cartier-Bresson was a neutral observer whose photographs do not embody a point of view. Though he shared the leftist opinions of other French intellectuals of his time—and even worked for a Communist newspaper during the late 1930s—human values always trump the political in his photography. This is surely one reason why his work has not dated, even though he photographed a world that is completely gone today.
Born in France before World War One, Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy industrial family and grew up with the best of everything. He left school at the age of eighteen after twice failing the college admissions exam and began to frequent the cafés of Paris where he met the leading artists and writers of his day. After failing as a painter, he acquired a camera and walked all over Paris, photographing whatever he saw. Beginning in about 1930, he used the Leica 35 mm camera, which was quite new at the time and became a favorite of art photographers. His first mature photographs are said to date from 1932.
Cartier-Bresson committed himself to photography as photo magazines and photo journalism were coming into being. Soon he was taking assignments and traveling throughout Europe and to Africa, Mexico, and New York. He was in France when the nation fell to Hitler in 1940 and he ended up in a forced labor camp, escaping early in 1943 on the third try. In 1947, Cartier-Bresson and other photographers founded Magnum, the photo agency that helped to sell his work. In the late 1940s, he made some of his most memorable photographs in India and Indonesia as those former colonies gained their independence. He also photographed the Communist takeover of China and life in the Soviet Union. Late in his career, he revisited the United States with his camera.
Cartier-Bresson rarely took more than a half-dozen shots of a single scene. Since he worked as events unfolded, he had to act very fast: select a scene, compose the photograph in the lens, shoot, and then shoot a few times more, often after changing his position. This way of working placed tremendous demands on his intuition and experience. He succeeded far more often than he failed and is by now considered one of the great photographers of the twentieth century.
“Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” a retrospective exhibition of more than 300 images by the artist, is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until October 3. “The Modern Century” includes his groundbreaking work of the early 1930s, which helped to define photography’s potential as art and his later on the spot photo reportage. The 1930s work is arranged chronologically, but the bulk of the photographs are presented topically with sections devoted to France, post-colonial India, the Soviet Union, the Communist takeover in China, the United States in the Fifties, and portraits of men and women in literature and the visual arts.
The exhibition also includes copies of magazine articles with photos and captions by Cartier-Bresson. “The Modern Century” originated at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, which has published a superb catalog written by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator in the Department of Photography at MOMA.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004). Hyères, France. 1932 Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 11 7/16" (19.6 x 29.1 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. ©2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris
All the iconic photographs are here. Can we ever forget them? Included are Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (1932) with the man seemingly suspended in air as he jumps over water; Hyères, France (1932, seen above) shot down a winding staircase with a bicyclist passing in the street below; Juvisy, France (1938, seen at top, credit at bottom) with corpulent picnickers on the banks of the Marne River; Dessau, Germany (April, 1945) with an enraged woman preparing to slap a shamefaced Gestapo informer; Beijing (December 1948) with Chinese males young and old in a tea room accompanied by their caged birds and crickets; Shanghai (December 1948) with desperate people crushed together in a line at a bank where they hope to change their paper currency for gold; Sumatra, Indonesia (1950), a turbaned woman with her back turned walking by a rice paddy; San Fermines, Pamplona, Spain (1952), two bullfighters in lofty conversation beneath a richly-dressed woman in the stands; and much more.
The show is wonderful, but do we really need it? We get all the photographs in the catalog. Most of us have seen them in books or even in periodicals like LIFE Magazine when they were first published. William Eggleston, the US photographer whose work was recently shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, seems to agree.
Eggleston writes in The Democratic Forest (1989) that he “picked up” Cartier-Bresson’s book The Decisive Moment (1952) to notice the “tonal quality of the black and white.” There were “no shadow areas that were totally black, where you couldn’t make out what was in them, and there were no totally white areas. It was only later that I was struck by the wonderful composition and framing. This was apparent through the tones of the printed book.”
Later, when Eggleston saw prints of some pictures from The Decisive Moment, he thought that they were “nothing—just ordinary looking photographs.” After returning to the book, he concluded that “it is the tones that make the composition come across.”
Eggleston’s observations indicate a paradox of this particular exhibition: You can get almost as much from the catalog for this show as from the show itself. This is quite uncommon for an art exhibition, but it is true of this particular show. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a cross between a photo artist and a photo journalist. His work benefits when we see it in print. Still, see “The Modern Century” because the photographs are so wonderful—just like revisiting old friends—and because there are so many of them.
-Victor M. Cassidy
(Top image: Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004) Juvisy, France. 1938 Gelatin silver print, printed 1947, 9 1/8 x 13 11/16" (23.3 x 34.8 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer. "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York. ©2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris).