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Prowling the Streets with a Camera

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“I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life – to preserve life in the act of living.”

Cartier-Bresson in 1952 recalling his work of the early 1930s

With his hand-held Leica camera, the French-born photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) had an uncanny eye for what he called, “the decisive moment,” capturing and freezing motion from the everyday flux of life, whether it was the precise second a man jumps over a puddle—his reflection perfectly mirrored in a pool of water—or a bicyclist rounds the curve of a street bellow, echoing the curve of a staircase above.

A compulsive traveler, Cartier-Bresson—witty, charming and never one to turn down an introduction—crisscrossed the globe by train, bus, car, bicycle, boat, rickshaw, horse, on foot and by plane. He knew all the right people (artists, politicians, writers) in whatever country or continent he found himself (Africa, Indonesia, America, India, Mexico, China, Russia, Italy, Germany, the U.K.) and was always in the right place at the right time.

A prisoner of the Nazis during World War II, he travelled to the U.S. after the war, then spent the next three years, 1947 to 1950, in Asia. They were tumultuous years politically, and he captured most of the highlights. Famously, in 1948, he arrived in Beijing just before the Communists occupied the city, and then captured the desperate last days of Shanghai and Nanjing before they, too, were occupied.

Cartier-Bresson and his first wife (born in Java) caught the last boat from Shanghai to Hong Kong, just in time to cover the Independence of Indonesia. And they were in India interviewing Ghandi just before his assassination. Cartier-Bresson’s photo-essays of Beijing and the aftermath of Ghandi’s assassination, published in Life Magazine, were major scoops. He, along with Cornell and Robert Capa, was a founding member of Magnum, formed in 1947 (apparently within MoMA’s premises), to protect the rights and royalties of photographers to their work.

MoMA’s exhibition of 300 images (some well known, many never seen before), by one of the greatest photographers of the 20th Century whose career spanned six decades, from 1929 to 1989, is the first major U.S. retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’ s work in more than 30 years. Anyone interested in the history of photography as an art and the history of photojournalism as a profession, will find it riveting. Organized by Peter Galassi (above), Chief Curator, Department of Photography, it draws upon previously inaccessible information and images from the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, established in 2002 by his widow, the photographer Martine Franck (below, with Galassi).

The exhibit begins chronologically with his early work of the ‘30s—classic images of sublime beauty and exquisite composition—as fresh today as they were then. During the ‘30s, he was not interested in politics or the approaching war or soft, romantic images of Paris, as were many of his fellow photographers. Instead, he captured everyday gestures, age-old patterns and encounters of street life, whether a woman gazing down at a man lying in the street or a family enjoying a picnic. Looking back at these images today, they also capture a way of life that no longer exists, a pre-World-War II Europe that was about to vanish.

During his long, productive life, his talent continued to develop and expand, and the exhibit, organized into 13 sections, encapsulates the entire range of his career. Photojournalism, of the sort made possible by the rise of mass magazines like Life, Look and their equivalents in the capitals of Europe, altered the focus of his work and his working methods.

Along the way, Cartier-Bresson did portraits of some of the seminal figures of the 20th Century (Chanel, Matisse, Saul Steinberg, Truman Capote, Balanchine, Colette, Nehru). They are masterpieces in their own right.

In my view, his early work and portraits are the high point of the exhibition.

“It is through living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the world around us. ” Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, 1952

When Cartier-Bresson ceased to travel, he ceased doing photography. Perhaps by then he’d discovered who he was and was ready to return to his first artistic passion, drawing.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century
April 11 – June 28
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
www.moma.org

Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004)
Hyères, France. 1932
Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 11 7/16″ (19.6 x 29.1 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004)
Shanghai, China. 1948
Gelatin silver print, printed 1971, 13 x 19 1/2″ (33 x 49.5 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

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