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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 7 JUNE 2010  — Although time has vindicated those who include photography among the fine arts, current trends have made artistic credibility rather difficult to retain for those fine-art photographers working in the documentary tradition. Do a poor or even competent job and you will be called a mere maker of snapshots; do brilliant work and you get labeled a journalist.

Perhaps because more variables are controlled when photographers stage an image than when they click a shutter in order to freeze a frame from real life, one can be lulled into thinking that there is more art involved when the subject matter and circumstances are carefully composed. Some of those tableaux vivants can be quite good, such as Cindy Sherman’s Complete Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980) — a series of sixty-nine imaginary movie publicity shots in which the photographer played an actress playing her roles. The problem with most staged photography, however, is that it is intended as commentary, and photography is a poor medium in which to draft a position paper. Photography is also so universally understood as presenting what is “real” that, once you stage reality (or unreality, whether with Photoshop or otherwise), the result usually reads as either too literal (and too emphatic) or too abstract (and too emphatic).

But staged photography is the vogue, which makes it almost an act of daring for The Museum of Modern Art (which reads the word modern not as the name of a period style but as a synonym for contemporary), to mount its large and compelling exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Modern Century. When other documentary photographers speak of “HCB,” as the artist is commonly known, the debate often forms around whether he was either one of the best photographers in the documentary tradition or the absolute best. With that kind of legacy — with the quality and importance of the photographer’s work already well known, and with many individual images already a part of the canon of world photography — you have to presume that the greatest wish on the mind of any curator who attempts to mount such an exhibition is: please, let me not blow it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Shanghai, December 1948
A rush to retrieve gold from the bank. With the approach of the Communist victory,
the value of paper money plummeted.
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum / Photo courtesy of MoMA

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 to a wealthy family in Chanteloup-en-Brie. Introduced to painting at an early age by a talented uncle, Cartier-Bresson enrolled in art school in Paris when he was nineteen. Next came time at Cambridge, where he studied English art and literature. Young lives can turn on things that, to people of greater maturity, can look small, even inconsequential. It was in 1931 in Marseille that, on seeing a photograph by the Hungarian Martin Munkacsi of naked African boys running into the water, Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, Cartier-Bresson began his rapid conversion from painter to photographer. He immediately did what so many others who followed in his footsteps would do: he bought a Leica.

Photography has struggled to call itself an art because it is so obviously dependent upon technology. Other arts have benefited from technical improvements — writers get more done with computers than with sharpened quills — but photography has nearly always labored under the suspicion that the device shares in the credit, perhaps because so many people who don’t claim to be artists are able to get something displayable out of a camera if they push the button often enough.

Caution must therefore be observed when talking about the technology of photography — the better not to toss the naysayers another stone to hurl back — but the Leica, a German invention, changed the rules of the game. It was the first practical portable camera capable of producing publishable images. Instead of a hatbox with a lens that you had to reload after each exposure, you now had something small enough to drop into your pocket and that could produce thirty-six frames on one role of film. With the Leica and other “miniature” cameras that followed, European photographers, untethered from their tripods at last and free from constant reloading, created a style of documentary photography that was slow to catch on in the USA, where cameras remained big and the subjects of photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were often strong, graphic and unconcerned with urban life: the mountains and lakes of national parks for Adams, grand vistas and nudes on sweeping dunes for Weston.

Is “street photography” photojournalism? It can be, and Cartier-Bresson knew he was acting primarily as a journalist whenever he worked for magazines and newspapers, but he had his first exhibition of his photography in 1932, in New York, five years before he began publishing his work as photojournalism. The tools of journalism can easily work as tools of persuasion, and Cartier-Bresson, a devoted leftist despite (or perhaps because of) his privileged birth, made two documentary films in support of the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. As the totalitarian forces that shaped the twentieth century began to take hold, he testily declared that the world was going to pieces and Adams and Weston were photographing rocks.

Artist, journalist, activist, escaped prisoner of war, member of the Resistance, co-founder of the cooperative photography agency Magnum Photos and pioneer of his medium — you can only envy and pity the museum curator who has to mount an exhibition to do justice to all that. The MoMA exhibition cleverly opens with enormous maps on which the routes of Cartier-Bresson’s journeys are set out, each looking as busy and complex as those route maps major airlines put in the back of their in-flight magazines to impress their passengers with their competence. The message is clear: the world of this artist was literally the world itself, and the exhibition delivers on that theme throughout.

Three hundred prints are on view, representing decades of accomplishment, beginning in 1929. (Although he lived until he was ninety-five, Cartier Bresson quit photography years earlier to concentrate on drawing.) The first part is the early work, and the second highlights photographs from the immediate postwar period. The remaining eleven are thematic groupings: France, the United States, the Soviet Union and China all get their due, as does the workplace at Bankers Trust Company. Included are famous, indeed, necessary images such as Behind the Gare St Lazare, Paris (1932) (known to many asThe Puddle Jumper) and Henri Matisse, Vence, France (1944) (Matisse with birds on a cage). The museum claims, however, that at least sixty of the photographs have previously been unseen by the general public — a bit of curatorial hubris (“We know what you and others do not.”) that pays off: even those who are familiar with Cartier-Bresson’s work are given plenty fresh things to see.

Perhaps it is because MoMA is a museum of art and not of journalism or politics that there is a uniform elegance to the images — to the point that, if you were not familiar with the masterpieces (that is, if you were coming to HCB’s work for the first time), you might have trouble picking out the brilliant from among the merely excellent. More likely, the museum has simply found a way to show us something that we needed to know: Cartier-Bresson was the photographic equivalent of the painter who excels as a draftsman. Whatever the reason, the show emphasizes the photographer’s gift for composition in a way that the many books of his images have not been able to do as well.

Cartier-Bresson typically shot within seconds of seeing his subjects, would take only a few frames at a time, even when the subject was famous (such as Matisse) or the situation was history (such as the 1968 uprising in Paris), and yet the exhibition demonstrates that his work is as precise — in the use of line and in the range of his black-and-white tones — as staged works that take other photographers days to set up and shoot. That moment when subject, background and all the other elements of a scene unite to create a spontaneous but powerful photograph will rarely last for more than the proverbial blink of an eye. It is an instant that documentary photographers call the decisive moment — a term, not surprisingly, coined by Cartier-Bresson.

Some may argue that even a photojournalist stops to stage his portraits, but the thirty-four portraits on view show the same ability of Cartier-Bresson to find the decisive moment even in portraiture. Many visitors to the exhibition will likely recognize the double portrait Irène and Frédéric Joloit-Curie, Paris (1945) without knowing it was by HCB. What might be hard to believe was that the photo, typical for the photographer in the complexity of the expressions and the care with which line and shade are rendered, was not the result of hours of preliminary conversation, test photos, lighting adjustments and alternative setups. As instructed by a note on the door, Cartier-Bresson let himself into the room without knocking; he saw the two of them standing there, took the picture and only then introduced himself. The ability to find what is resonant and true, and to capture expressions and moods that speak to the common experience of humanity, whether in China, India, London, Paris or Milwaukee, is to create a body of art that will endure.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Paris, 1945
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum
Photo courtesy of MoMA

And that takes us back to staged photography and the burdens of commentary. When we at Culturekiosque speak with young artists who admire the work of Cindy Sherman, should the topic turn to her series of imaginary movie stills, we typically hear that they believe the photographs are intended to represent frames from midcentury films. That is because movies are no longer promoted by the use of the kind of advertising photos taken on the set and displayed outside theater box offices that Sherman’s pictures were actually intended to emulate. Those “movie stills” of the period had a certain look that was similar to, but not the same as, the films they helped promote. With their point of reference lost, Sherman’s pictures now require explanation. And as we have suggested here before, art that cannot travel independently of the baggage of explanation can never aspire to greatness and will likely cease in time to be art. Cartier-Bresson had an answer for that:

My passion has never been for photography itself but for the possibility, by forgetting yourself — and this is important — of capturing in a fraction of a second the emotion of a subject and the beauty of form. There is a natural geometry in what we see. I don’t have a message. I’m not trying to prove anything. You see, you feel and the surprised eye responds.

When photography seeks in that way to primarily present experiences common to all humanity, the point of reference remains accessible to everyone. To be moved by the work of Cartier-Bresson, you don’t need to understand the politics behind the scenes he recorded or the art or scholarship of the famous people whose portraits he took. You need only bring your willingness to share in the human experience, and you will get enough to appreciate without having to read a single wall label. To those familiar with Cartier-Bresson, the MoMA exhibition is an opportunity for new learning. For all, it brings something that can be hard to come by at art museums these days: the pleasure of seeing pure beauty.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century
Through 28 June 2010
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel: (1) 212 708 94 00

Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Modern Century
By Peter Galassi
Photographs: Henri Cartier-Bresson
Hardcover: 376 pages
Includes 435 illustrations
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (April 2010)
ISBN-10: 0870707787
ISBN-13: 978-0870707780

Headline image: Henri Cartier-Bresson: Calle Cuauhtemocztin, Mexico City, 1934 – 35
© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum
Photo courtesy of MoMA

After New York,  Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century travels to The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.