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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.

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Some of his strongest images are from these years. In "Seville, Spain" (1933), ragamuffin children play amid the rubble caused by violence during the Spanish Civil War. Framed by the arc of a blasted building, boys throw rocks while one child balances precariously on a fragment of wall – what's left of their old way of life. Resilience vies with fragility and destruction in a picture that's both an epitaph and a bone-chilling preview.

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"Hyères, France" (1932) is an arresting image of a boy whizzing by on a bicycle. The camera literally arrests his speed as he rounds a curve, which elegantly echoes a flight of stairs spiraling down. "I prowled the streets all day," Cartier-Bresson explained, "feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to 'trap' life – to preserve life in the act of living." One can almost see him roaming the boulevards, stalking his prey: juxtapositions that yield surprising epiphanies.

Already an artist with a distinct visual voice, during the next 30 years of his prolific career Cartier-Bresson brought unique skills to the profession he virtually created: photojournalist. An original member of the prestigious Magnum Photos founded in 1947, after World War II Cartier-Bresson was a man on the move. Assigned to capture pivotal events that define our modern world, he tirelessly crisscrossed continents and oceans.

Fortunately, a harmonic convergence of talent and tools occurred. Technology put a lightweight, hand-held camera loaded with fast-exposure film in Cartier-Bresson's hands just as mass-circulation picture magazines such as Life and Harper's Bazaar became popular. Cartier-Bresson took off like a comet, combining his eye for composition with voracious inquisitiveness.

Eyes, hands, and two feet are what Cartier-Bresson said it took to be a photojournalist. As he trotted all over the world, it seemed as though he had the whole globe in his viewfinder. Wherever there was a society in transition (countries emerging from colonialism like India, Burma, and Indonesia; the Soviet Union after Stalin's death; China during Mao's Great Leap Forward push to industrialize; mass hysteria after Gandhi's assassination), Cartier-Bresson was there.

Among his masterpieces is "Dessau, Germany" (1945), capturing the moment when a deportee accuses an informer of betraying her to the Gestapo. The faces tell a larger story: the shame and guilt of the accused, anger and hatred in the eyes of the crowd. The emotion is just as immediate today.

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