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Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography; 'IT'S A YES, YES, YES'

By Alexandra JohnsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 1980

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.

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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.