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

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.

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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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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

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