Henri Cartier-Bresson: Big Picture

7 minute read
Richard Lacayo

With 300 or so photographs, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a really big show. No doubt, nothing less would do to represent the vast scope of an artist Richard Avedon called, with just the slightest exaggeration, “the Tolstoy of photography.”

But six years after his death at the magnificent age of 95, Cartier-Bresson proves that you can be one of the most famous names in photography and still be one of its greatest enigmas. For a few years in the 1930s, he was a fiercely dedicated avant-gardist, making pictures that were powerfully strange. Yet after World War II, he somehow became one of the biggest mainstream photojournalists, working for magazines that liked pictures to be plainly legible and not too subtly nuanced. And let’s not even talk about inscrutable.

(See pictures from the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit.)

Born near Paris in 1908 to a prosperous family of thread manufacturers, Cartier-Bresson once hoped to become a painter. As it turned out, his gifts in that department were modest; no less a judge than Gertrude Stein took one look at his work and suggested he join the family business. Wealthy enough to do nothing in particular, he drifted for years, studying with the middling painter André Lhote and hanging on the edges of the Surrealist movement. Though his formal education ended at 18, he was a classic aesthete, bookish and art-obsessed, with fine-boned features and skin so fair that in Mexico a girlfriend gave him a Spanish nickname meaning “beautiful man with face the color of shrimp.”

He was tougher than he looked. In 1930 he abruptly abandoned the stale confines of bourgeois civilization for the more primal realms of French colonial Africa. (Even in this, he was playing the artiste: think Gauguin in Polynesia or Rimbaud in Abyssinia. Among the French, the flight to primitivism was something of a creative-class tradition.) In the Ivory Coast, he lived for a year as a hunter, selling to villagers the game he killed. And without quite thinking of himself as a photographer, he also took pictures.

(See pictures by Bruce Davidson.)

It wasn’t until his return to France in 1931 that Cartier-Bresson made a crucial realization: through photography, he could achieve the goals of the Surrealists he so much admired. The MoMA show, which runs through June 28 and then travels to Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta, is a career-spanning retrospective. But while Cartier-Bresson’s Surrealist phase would be just a brief moment in that career, it was a crucial one.

MoMA’s chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, who organized this show, produced a brilliant little Cartier-Bresson exhibition in 1987 that made explicit the importance of Surrealism to the photographer’s early work. Cartier-Bresson never joined the movement in any formal way and didn’t even care much for the work of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, who he thought simply illustrated contrived paradoxes. What excited him was the Surrealist attempt to bypass the rational faculties as a way to glimpse a deeper reality. In their struggle to circumvent the conscious mind, the Surrealists tried hypnotism, free drawing and automatic writing. It was Cartier-Bresson’s great insight that his Leica was the most automatic instrument of all. If a photographer simply gave himself over to the chance encounters of the day and captured them at the right instant, a snapshot could drive straight to the heart of the uncanny. All the obsessions of Surrealist fantasy — shock juxtapositions, erotic concealments, dismembered anatomies — were at large in the ordinary life of the streets.

(See pictures by Dennis Stock.)

As his biographer Pierre Assouline once put it, in those years Cartier-Bresson used his camera “as a Geiger counter,” a machine to register the secret pulse of the world. And there’s certainly a whole world of crackling enigmas in Valencia, Spain, 1933, made at a bullring. On the right, a man’s disembodied head signals to us from his frame within a frame. At center, a broken 7 presides in a semicircle that seems to emanate from his glasses. And at left, another man peers into a dark threshold. All it took to find these things was a click.

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The Globetrotter
Cartier-Bresson worked most intensely under the spell of Surrealism for just three years, from 1932 to 1934. For the next three, he virtually stopped taking pictures while he dabbled in filmmaking. But by 1937, right after his first marriage, he took a job as a photographer for the leftist Paris daily Ce Soir, work that bent him to the disciplines and conventions of deadline journalism. He didn’t like them much. When he left that job in 1939, with World War II looming, he left the world of salaried employment for good. By June of the following year, he was a prisoner of war in a German labor camp, where he languished for three years before escaping.

(See pictures by blind photographers.)

Cartier-Bresson emerged from the war committed at last to the idea of himself as a photographer. His roots in Surrealism may have made him an unlikely candidate for the pivotal role he would soon play in the emergence of magazine photojournalism. But along with the photographers Robert Capa and David Szymin, known as Chim, he became a founding member of Magnum — one of the dominant photo agencies in the years when plush weeklies like LIFE and Paris Match paid big money for pictures. As Galassi points out in the show’s catalog, of the great figures of early modernist photography — including André Kertész, Edward Weston and Walker Evans — Cartier-Bresson “is the only one whose work blossomed so fully after the war.”

How did he make this unlikely transition? No doubt it helped that he learned to rely less on the complex geometry of his earlier work and moved toward a more direct style. What you also get less often in pictures from his later years is the mesmerizing oddity of those from the ’30s. In a Cartier-Bresson from, say, 1960, you feel that you’re seeing a recognizable world through an exquisitely attentive eye. In the earlier work, you’re seeing another world altogether.

(Read: “Marcel Duchamp: Anything Goes.”)

Yet he never entirely let go of that world. Even in the 1950s and ’60s, a whiff of the surreal persists. How else to describe the artificial sky filled with artificial planes in World’s Fair, Brussels, 1958? And it’s unmistakable in Torcello, Near Venice, 1953, where the spiked prow of a gondola reads the dial of an arched bridge, while also bearing down on a running girl who is nearly identical to a figure in Giorgio de Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, a painting the Surrealists revered.

(See a top 10 of doctored photos.)

Until he put down his camera in the 1970s to devote himself to drawing, Cartier-Bresson almost never stopped traveling. He was at the scene of some of the most important stories of his time — India in the final days of the British Raj, Beijing just before Mao’s army entered. But his greatest gift was for pictures that didn’t report anything more newsworthy than the erotic storm system of bodies in Coney Island, New York, 1946, or the domestic bliss of Bougival, Near Paris, 1956. An image of a man being greeted from the threshold of his houseboat by his wife, baby and dogs, it’s a tour de force of art-historical synthesis. The collage-style juxtaposition of figures, the abrupt changes of scale between the man and what he’s seeing: it’s all very modern. But the supple line of the man’s torso could have been drawn by Bronzino, while his wife and baby gently summon the long tradition of the Madonna and child — which is apt, since this may be the most succinct picture of heaven ever made. If it’s true that Cartier-Bresson was the Tolstoy of photography, it’s because he knew that the great pulse of his time flowed through the humblest places.

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