Books and Arts; A father of modern photography;The hunter and his prey;
Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs are on show in New York until June 28th;
All it takes to be a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, is “one finger, one eye and two legs”. He visualised photography as a way of engaging with the world. He quietly stalked his subjects—Balinese dancers, Mongolian wrestlers, New York bankers—until that “decisive moment” when the right composition filled the frame. It all came so naturally. He rarely used a light meter or checked his aperture setting, and he seldom took more than a few shots of a single subject. With the instinct of a hunter, he knew when to click the shutter: “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap' life—to preserve life in the act of living.”
Born in 1908 in Paris, the eldest son of wealthy cotton-thread manufacturers, Cartier-Bresson had a lusty, rebellious hunger for travel. With a head full of Rimbaud and a copy of “Ulysses” under his arm, he set off for west Africa in search of adventure. (He aspired to be a painter, but Gertrude Stein suggested he drop the brushes.) He bought his first Leica in the Cote d'Ivoire when he was 23. Light and quiet, the camera had just come onto the market, and it was a revelation. It fitted into his pocket, along with a few rolls of film. “Nobody took pictures that were better at exploiting the portability of the camera,” says Peter Galassi, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” is on view.
The show, many years in the making, is drawn primarily from the huge archive of work held by the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, founded a year before he died in 2004. From the thousands available, Mr Galassi has selected 300 images from 1929 to 1989, a fifth of which have never been seen publicly before.
As cameras grew smaller and picture magazines bigger, Cartier-Bresson became a globe-trotting hired hand. But though he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time—in India at the time of Gandhi's assassination, in China during the Cultural Revolution—he did not really have a nose for a good scoop. What he excelled at was seeing things in a different way from most other people.
The visitor is greeted by a wall of four photographs: a crowd of flag-waving, bespectacled Nixon-supporters in Texas in 1960 (the illustration above shows a couple of more sedate fans in Indiana); a cluster of Chinese youth gawking at a television in Beijing in 1958; a mass of French mourners in coats holding hands in 1962; and a group of wizened and rather menacing old men in Sardinia, lounging in straw-like grass, also in 1962. The juxtaposition of these images shows not just Cartier-Bresson's range but also his gift for group portraits. When snapping a spectacle—a coronation, say, or a parade—he trained his camera on the unsuspecting bystanders.
The show is divided into sections, starting with some of Cartier-Bresson's most arresting surrealist work from the 1930s, such as a sunbather in Trieste, Italy, whose white body echoes a sliver of white in the grass, and his self-assured prostitutes in Mexico City. Then came the war (he was a prisoner in Germany for three years before escaping) followed by his career as photojournalist and portrait photographer.
There is much to marvel at, such as the pictures of China in 1948, which capture the photographer's powerful sense of formal composition. Some of the curator's choices seem a bit odd and the written descriptions, which add little, are occasionally heavy-handed. One section, for instance, is introduced as Cartier-Bresson's criticism of “American vulgarity, greed and racism”. But the visitor is left with a remarkable chronicle of the transformations of the 20th century—the rise of industrialisation, the fall of colonialism, the spread of commercialism and the grand-scale shift in world order—all captured by a lone man and his camera.