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Cartier-Bresson: A master's black-and-white world

Cartier-Bresson captured moments and movements of profound social change with an artist's eye. A new exhibition looks at 45 years of his iconic work.

By Carol StricklandContributor / May 7, 2010

Cartier-Bresson ‘prowled the streets’ in search of fleeting moments such as this boy on a bicycle photo taken in Hyères, France, in 1932.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, Courtesy of Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson


New York

"The great pleasure for my Leica," the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) wrote in 1987, "was to have the spare elements of a collage suddenly jump from the street into the lens." Until June 28, visitors to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) have the great pleasure to see that fusion of street and lens in 300 photographs that make up "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century."

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No one looked "more poignantly at the world," according to MoMA's director, Glenn Lowry. "One of the most talented photographers who ever lived," pronounces Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography. Cartier-Bresson, he adds, "was a brilliant creator of aphorisms, a genius of lasting sound bites." His snapshots are compact, visual metaphors for each social entity he documents.

Yet Mr. Galassi cautions viewers not to be misled by the iconic quality of the indelible images. "All that pictorial perfection can mislead us," he says, noting that aesthetic perfection was not Cartier-Bresson's raison d'être. "The reach of his curiosity," Galassi says, "is breathtaking." Not content to make pretty pictures, his goal was to discover the world and, in so doing, expand his – and our – vision.

IN PICTURES: Henri Cartier-Bresson's black-and-white world

"It's in living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the outside world," Cartier-Bresson wrote in his groundbreaking work published in English as "The Decisive Moment" (1952). Photography was his means to launch internal and external voyages of discovery, like some Marco Polo of the mind. The book's French title, "Images à la Sauvette," implies pictures taken on the sly, slices of life and light that illuminate hidden realms.

This offbeat viewpoint originated in the young Cartier-Bresson's taste for Surrealism and left-wing politics. Born to wealth and reared amid the trappings of privilege, he rebelled against a world where summer shelter meant a family chateau. At age 18 he dropped out of school and into an avant-garde milieu that rejected conventional artistic methods and morality. His cohort believed truth to be covert, enigmatic.

Cartier-Bresson's 1930s pictures helped to define photographic Modernism. To make images seem mysterious, almost magical, he distorted or partially obscured forms and displaced familiar objects from their context, emphasizing bold graphics and geometric patterns.