Ready to seize decisive moments

By

A PROPOS DE PARIS

By Henri Cartier-Bresson

Little, Brown & Co.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

168 pp., $29.95

TETE A TETE: PORTRAITS

By Henri Cartier-Bresson

Little, Brown & Co.

144 pp., $65

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of this century's leading photographers, is master of his famous "decisive moment," the essence of photojournalism. For more than 60 years, he has captured people and places rich in beauty as well as turmoil with his Leica camera. Cartier-Bresson said: "Photography is nothing, it's life that interests me."

This season, we have two new books of his work, and they complement each other nicely. A Propos de Paris, a unique gallery of urban landscapes, shows us Paris - glorious, beautiful, tragic, joyous, lonely - in all its moods. Mostly shot in the 1940s and 1950s, these 131 images were personally chosen by Cartier-Bresson. Many photographs are well known, others rescued from oblivion. The unpretentious frankness of black and white is a powerful communicator. His compositions are spectacular, complex, and often surprising. The viewer keeps looking further into the photograph to discover more. The mark of great work is that you can keep coming back to it. This book shows us street shooting at its best and most powerful.

Cartier-Bresson used his Leica camera "as a window that one leaves permanently open for the visitations of the unconscious and the unpredictable; ready for that miraculous beauty that can appear at any moment and must be seized or be for ever lost," writes Andr Pieyre de Mandiargues.

The photographer also supervised the design, arrangement, and selection of photographs for Tte Tte. This collection of portraits is full of famous personalities: Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Coco Chanel, the Dalai Lama, Truman Capote, Robert Kennedy. But these are not glamour shots. Cartier-Bresson is as adept at capturing the decisive moment in a posed portrait as on the streets in order to show the subject's character. The portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1951, is overwhelming in its tenderness.

The book is very much about including portraits of ordinary folks juxtaposed with the rich and famous. One of my favorites is an anonymous man from Oaxaca, Mexico, 1934, who peers out from under the brim of his hat with a shy smile.

An added treat is the inclusion of some of Cartier-Bresson's pencil drawings, including a self-portrait. Whether famous or not, the photographer's subjects project an ease and unself-consciousness that only an expert could elicit.

"Cartier-Bresson's subjects retain that spark of life that only a master is able to impart to the photographic portrait," writes E.H. Gombrich in the introduction.

* Melanie Stetson Freeman is a Monitor staff photographer.

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