"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century"

By Tully, Nola | New Criterion, June 2010 | Go to article overview

"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century"


Tully, Nola, New Criterion


"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

April 11-June 28, 2010

In a 1971 essay, Hilton Kramer praised Henri Cartier-Bresson's (1908-2004) immense talent for photography:

    I think of Henry James's comment on a
   visitor's (obviously his own) first experience of
   the Theatre Francais: "He has heard all his life
   of attention to detail, and now, for the first
   time, he sees something that deserves that
   name." 

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has recently installed an extensive retrospective of Cartier-Bresson's work, which elevated the documentary style to high art. "The Modern Century" explores twentieth-century change, not only in the medium of photography, which was influenced by the advent of magazine journalism, but also in societies across the globe, from ancient cultures to a postwar Europe. The show includes 300 gelatin silver prints, and those with negative dates up to and including 1935 were printed by the photographer. All post-World War II images were printed by others, and many in fact cannot be dated with absolute accuracy.

Cartier-Bresson discovered the Leica, a handheld camera, when he went to Africa in 1930. The trip launched a half-century of travel documenting disparate subjects, from Fascism and the advent of world war, to the Chinese Communist revolution, to the offices of the Bankers Trust Company in the 1960s--a model of the American prosperity and ingenuity that had become the envy of the world. Cartier-Bresson sought to portray universals in human experience, what be called the sameness of man, but with rigorous classicism and attention to form. This first posthumous retrospective includes previously unseen images and a fascinating look at a photographer whose style is still influential today.

At the show's entrance, several large-scale maps chart five decades of travel, and thirteen galleries present the themes of the work. The section titled "Early Work" includes Hyeres France, 1932, in which the compressed focal planes of a swirling banister and bicyclist speak to the visual experiments of early twentieth-century photography. Cartier-Bresson trained his eye on works by Eugene Atget, but his early career owes a debt to the Surrealists. One also detects the influences of other early twentieth-century photographers, such as Andre Kertesz and Martin Munkacsi. In Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris 1932, a man hops a puddle, and a collison of light and speed, slightly off-kilter yet formally balanced, frames the decisive moment.

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