"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century"

MoMA focuses on a giant of photography.

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  • Hyres, France

  • Worlds Fair, 1958

Hyres, France

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<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908--2004) is one of the undisputed giants of photography. He shot more than half a million frames of film in his lifetime, first as a youthful Surrealist and leftist sympathizer, then as a pioneering photojournalist for Magnum, the agency he founded in 1947 with Robert Capa, among others. This retrospective, beautifully curated by Peter Galassi and comprising 300 pictures, leaves the viewer both awestruck and numb. The greatest of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs—which include some of the most iconic images of the 20th century—are possessed of extraordinary grace and mystery. But the vastness of his primary subject—nothing less than the entire modern era—and his famously Olympian detachment conspire to produce a frustrating lack of specificity.

The son of a wealthy thread manufacturer, Cartier-Bresson was born in Paris—where, beginning in his late teens, he immersed himself in the heady culture of the avant-garde, absorbing champagne, Surrealism and Marxist philosophy. He gave up painting early on in favor of photography, which, by the 1920s and 1930s, was emerging as a major cultural and aesthetic force. By that point, practitioners of advanced art were embracing it as a suitably technological medium, while the advent of small, 35mm cameras gave rise to a new breed of documentary photographers, as well as mass-market picture magazines that provided an outlet for their work.

Cartier-Bresson straddled both. The first section of the show is devoted to his experimental works of the ’30s, which anticipate and incorporate a variety of modernist innovations: An overhead view of African boatmen echoes the extreme camera angles of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s “new vision”; a study of three primping creatures of uncertain gender, taken in a Spanish brothel, conjures the street photographs of Brassa; an image of a disembodied hand reflected in an oil-slicked sheet of water employs the flattening and defamiliarizing of the everyday found in the work of Andre Kertsz.

The second and much larger part of the show encompasses Cartier-Bresson’s career as a photojournalist. Following the war, and until he hung up his cameras in the 1970s, he traveled almost continuously on assignment for magazines such as Life and Paris Match. His years on the road correspond almost exactly to the middle period of the “short” 20th century described by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, one marked by social and technological revolutions, and this leg of the exhibition likewise begins with a bang. A shot of a woman denouncing a Nazi collaborator (1945) is followed by images of Gandhi’s funeral (1948), a mob storming a bank in Shanghai days before the Communist takeover, and paintings being removed from a palace in the newly formed republic of Indonesia (both from 1949).

Cartier-Bresson’s specialty was the “decisive moment,” the instant in which an everyday situation became a metaphor for larger historical events; his genius was to understand that capturing this moment was not so much a matter of being in the right place at the right time as of closing in on the telegraphic gesture, the revealing look and the expressive fold of cloth. An almost Mannerist sensibility informs many of these pictures: In one photo, a fish seller in Marseilles and her customer reach out to each other in holy preindustrial communion; in another, an ad executive, surrounded by a halo of signage, becomes a saint for the modern age. A third, shot at Coney Island, depicts a young man, visibly aroused, holding a young woman down by her wrists while his friend looks on; the underlying violence of the scene is embodied in the twisted folds of the beach blanket underneath them.

In later years, Cartier-Bresson’s subjects became more particular and less symbolic. His images from the 1970s—a family group picnicking in Telavi, Georgia; a trio of American Indian women on a sidewalk in Gallup, New Mexico, their hair in curlers—resist easy interpretations. Even in these last photographs, Cartier-Bresson keeps his distance, which prompted an exasperated Robert Frank to say about him, “I’ve always thought it was terribly important to have a point of view, and I was always sort of disappointed in him that it was never in his pictures.”

If this sentiment rings true, it may be due to our own impatience, accustomed as we are to the link between photography and self-representation, and to the more impassioned and inflected work of later photographers, Diane Arbus, Roy DeCarava and Frank himself among them. Nevertheless, Cartier-Bresson, while dispassionate, was never cynical or disengaged, and it was with boundless and inclusive interest in the world that he introduced it to itself.

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Museum of Modern Art, through June 28

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