New York — As I was mounting the staircase, I expected him to be waiting at the top, hand on his camera, waiting for the perfect configuration of detail before snapping the photograph. It was, after all, hism setting: a solitary figure scaling the spiraling geometry of a staircase.
When I reached the top of the stairs, there was no one to tell that I had just walked through, and for a moment been, a classic Cartier-Bresson photograph. It was one of those small incidents, a simple ascending of stairs, in which his eye perceived order, grace, balance, and, above all, simple human drama. Out of his accidental circumstance, he would wrest a photograph of great formal elegance, freezing the fleeting moment, capturing the fugitive gesture. It was deceptively simple scenes like this that he prized, scenes that said: "This. Now."
As if anticipating those reflections, the International Center of Photography , which is featuring an important retrospective of Cartier-Bresson's work (through Jan. 6), has fixed a placard in its second-floor gallery. On it are the words Henri Cartier- Bresson would have delivered, had he been at the top of the stairs: "And photography is like that. It's 'yes, yes, yes.' And there's no maybe . . . . It's a presence. It's a moment. It's there!"
Nowhere is this credo more lyrically in evidence than in the 155 images the photographer selected for this show. "Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer," which is scheduled to tour North America and Mexico through August, 1982, is, literally and figuratively, the show of a lifetime. Spanning half a century's work and encompassing portraits, landscapes, and street scenes taken in 23 countries, the show is nothing less than Cartier-Bresson's personal statement about photography itself.
It is a statement that devotees and detractors alike (if the latter actually exist) will throng the show to interpret. For Cartier-Bresson is the doyen of modern photography, the most important photographer living today. He is credited with creating more publicly memorable images than any other photojournalist of his time, and his career is hallmarked by its steady and serious innovations. Above all, he is the photographer's photographer, a man whose work has sparked and inspired generations of other photographers. His particular sphere of influence, though, lies in "street photography," that deceptively casual genre that grew out of stalking urban scenes for material. Among those whose work most directly reflects Cartier-Bresson's influence in this area are Robert Frank, Lee Freidlander, and, more recently, Joel Meyerowitz.
Rather like his photographic style, Henri Cartier-Bresson eludes easy definition. (He compounds this task for critics by shunning interviews, avoiding journalists, and when casually cornered in his own Parisian streets, claims stark ignorance about how or why his photographs succeed.) His aggressive attempts at anonymity hold the key to his photographic character, if not to his personal one. His hallmark is his invisibility. To study any of his photographs is to see his subject without feeling that we're watching him see it. It's for this season that he has been described as the perfect photographic burglar: someone who steals into a scene, quietly and unobtrusively gets what he wants, and vanishes. What remain are his trademarks, as transparent as fingerprints: images of great economy, with, balance, and surprise.
If the show celebrates this great master, it also celebrates the intimate, everyday life he loves to detail. For him there is no such thing as an uninteresting person or place; everything merits visual praise. His photographs are intense evocations of the ordinary: the marketplace, the back alley, the street corner. Peopling his work are common laborers, farmers, bourgeois brides , children, merchants. To paraphrase Yeats, his fascination is for the difficult: the obvious in life, the everyday human exchange and encounter.
Indeed, one of his most daring series of photographs centers on the coronation of George VI in 1937. Nowhere, though, is King George to be seen. What fascinates Cartier-Bresson is the crowd that has come to see him. Pointing his lens at a sleeping man, a smiling child, a strolling woman, he captures the effects of the pageantry without ever directly showing the object.
"Photography," he once wrote, "implies a recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things." It's no coincidence, then, that so many of the photographs on display celebrate motion: boys on bikes speeding down steep hills, or a young girl hurling herself up a flight of stone steps. Beneath his spinning surfaces, though, Cartier-Bresson's search is for order. "Photography," he says, "is a recognition of an order which is in front of you." Thus, gifted with an instinctual sense of form, he fashions with classic ordered image out of the accidental incident.
Perhaps the best example of this is his famous "Behind the Saint-Lazare Station, Paris," taken in 1932. The scene is simple: A man hurdles a large puddle of water. What is so remarkable about this scene, though, is the tension of opposite elements: the blurry figure contrasted to the glassy water; his darkness to its shimmering lightness; his motion to its staticness. It is only later that we see in the far left corner a poster of a figure leaping that is the mirror-opposite of the man himself. It is a photograph of sheer magic made to look accidental.
"Above all," he argues, "I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of a single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes." This process is what he coined "the decisive moment," when "to take a photograph is to hold one's breath . . . when all faculties converge in the face of fleeting reality."
If one thing could be said to characterize Cartier-Bresson's life, it is this preoccupation with capturing the ephermeral. His own life is a whirlwind resume of trying to do just that. Bern in Chanetloup, France, in 1908, he grew up wanting to be a painter. At 19 he went to Paris to study with Andre Lhote, a Cubist, and in 1928 studied painting and literature at Cambridge University. In 1931, while traveling through the Ivory Coast, he began to photograph, an occupation he pursued vigorously upon his return to Paris. There he became one of the first photographers to use the lightning- fast 35-mm. Leica, which he dubbed "an extension of the eye." The camera proved invaluable in his street work. "The difference between a good and a mediocre picture [is] a matter of millimeters."
After his first exhibit at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, he worked in film, first with Jean Renoir and later on a documentary on the Spanish Civil War. The outbreak of World War II both interrupted an intensified his work. Taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940, he escaped and joined a resistance group of French photographers intent on documenting the occupation and liberation of France.
After the war, he began his epic foreign travels that culminated in his finest photodocumentary work. He was always in the right place at the right time: in 1949 in China during the civil war, in 1954 as the first Western photographer allowed in the cold-war Soviet Union, in 1959 back in China for the tenth anniversary of the People's Republic.
As a documentation, Cartier-Bresson reveals rather than exposes, presents rather than judges. He shapes his scene by juxtaposing its conflicting elements , catching a group of girls playing near the Berlin wall, for example. However balanced his visual reporting, his documents of a Gestapo informer being denounced at Dessau, Germany, or his studies of the last days of the Chinese Kuomintang are among our most searing reminders of the horrors of recent history.
His true achievement, though, lies in those unhurried photographs done between travels. The International Center of Photography show brims with such works: couples picknicking by a riverbank, a bride being pushed on a swing, children chatting in doorways. Those are immaculate pictures, ingenious in their unexpected combinations of the ordinary.
"There are no new ideas in the world," the photographer once said. "There are only new arrangements of things. Everything is new, every minute is new. That means re-examining." That is precisely what Cartier-Bresson makes us do, as we leave his show, descend the stairs to the street, and become part of the world he has suddenly made so vivid.
"Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer," sponsored by the American Express Foundation, will travel to the following: Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 12- March 23); Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (April 17-June 8); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (June 24-Aug. 10); Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City (Sept. 3-Oct. 12); Seattle Art Museum (Nov. 19-Jan. 4, 1981); High Museum of Art, Atlanta (Jan. 31-March 15); Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington (April 3-May 17); Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (June 3-July 12); Philadelphia Museum of Art (Aug. 1-Oct. 7 ); Indianapolis Museum of Art (Oct. 19-Dec. 1); Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Feb. 16-April 4); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (April 30-June 13); William Rockhill Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri (July 11-Aug. 29).m