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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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"New York" (1946) frames a mother holding her son, just returned from war, amid a crowd on a pier. Their heads touch. She clutches him tenderly; he hides his tears in a handkerchief. Here are the ingredients of great art: a significant central subject expressing universal emotions and local details to root it in a particular scene.

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Images that are timely but timeless are Cartier-Bresson's signature contribution. He had no difficulty reconciling the oft-competing demands of a photojournalist's neutral observation with an artist's singular outlook. He was an impersonal witness to history who brought to his task highly personal standards of quality.

Cartier-Bresson didn't just "cover" a subject, which suggests a superficial take on a milestone event. He looked beneath the covers for deeper truths. Even in an exquisite landscape like "Sumatra, Indonesia" (1950) – an image of terraced rice paddies reflecting palm trees as a turbaned woman walks past their sinuous shapes – he conveys more than an external view. His caption indicates he saw not just parts but the whole of the picture: "The villages, the vegetation, and the people are in complete harmony, like the flesh of a fruit that fills its skin entirely."

His secret? He tells us: "To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression." Both his flash of recognition and forms of expression were extraordinary. His breadth was astonishing.

The compositions and content of his photographs, taken over the course of 45 years, capture moments and movements of profound social change, cultures in transition as they shift from Old World tradition to New World modernity. "Shanghai, December, 1948" shows a crush of panicked people stampeding to withdraw gold from a bank, just days before the Communist takeover of the city. Cartier-Bresson slipped away on the last boat to Hong Kong before the country changed forever.

It wasn't just luck that he was there and took that picture. "To do valid work," he said, "you must let things grow in you." His images are the fruit of an independent spirit coupled with the power of empathy as well as artistic and personal growth.

The exhibition travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, July 24–Oct. 3; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oct. 30, 2010–Jan. 30, 2011; and Atlanta's High Museum of Art, Feb. 19–May 15, 2011.

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