Cartier-Bresson's Way With the Ordinary

He catches images at the moment when art transforms the mundane

A GIANT in the world of photography is being celebrated in a small but significant show in a tiny gallery in Santa Monica, Calif.

The images at the respected Peter Fetterman Gallery are not new or revolutionary, but important because Henri Cartier-Bresson gave up photography in 1973. Though he still does occasional portraits of friends and carries his Leica camera with him everywhere, new images are rare. Now in his late 80s, Cartier-Bresson has returned to drawing as his primary artistic endeavor.

Charming and perverse, the reclusive Cartier-Bresson says he is done with the camera even as he publishes a definitive monograph of his photography. He prefers to talk, when he does at all, about the drawing that was his first love.

Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy French textile family, but he refused to go into the business, deciding instead to go to Africa in 1931. He hoped on his return to Paris to paint all the human suffering he saw, but grew impatient with that medium. He took up photography while recuperating from an illness. He picked up a 35-mm Leica and started shooting. Later, Cartier-Bresson claimed that he mastered the format in three days.

He served in the French Army as a photographer in World War II and was imprisoned for nearly three years by the Germans. After escaping, he joined underground photographers documenting the German occupation of France.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a huge survey of his work in 1946, intending it to be a posthumous tribute; people thought he had died in the war. Cartier-Bresson caused a major uproar when he attended the opening, very much alive.

The artist's knack for the mysterious, the unedited, and the darkly instinctual dredged from the commonplace (for example, in one photo a man leaps over a puddle and is captured deliberately out of focus, becoming an odd specter moving through time) comes not from Surrealist dogma but from Cartier-Bresson's passion for the human comedy. ``Sensitivity is something you cannot teach,'' he says.

Another photograph included in the exhibition, ``Srinagar, Kashmir'' from 1948, shows the backs of heavily draped figures looking out over a horizon. One woman is raising her hands, perhaps to do something as simple as adjust her sleeve. But, captured in that instant when art makes a mystery of the mundane, her hands seem to suplicate the heavens in a dance that is part gratitude, part desperation.

Cartier-Bresson's eye was so technically adept that it is said he never cropped or altered his prints in the darkroom. His impeccable, innate sense of composition captured frame after frame just as life delivered them - fleetingly and without warning.

``For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity ... which in visual terms questions and decides simultaneously,'' he says. ``In order to give meaning to the world, one must feel involved with what one singles out through the viewfinder.''

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