A Friend Writes...

A Friend Writes... photo above: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (1932)

Dear Grids,

I went to MoMA this week to check out Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, the terrific new retrospective of the work of the late, great French photographer who pioneered street photography as an art form.

Have you been yet? If not, run don't walk. The galleries were packed with half the populations of France, Spain, and Italy (what's with all the European tourists in April by the way?) but don't let that put you off.

MoMA's chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, put together the massive exhibition. The show includes 300 stunning black and white prints, a few wall-sized maps, and many display cases filled with the vintage magazines Cartier-Bresson shot for (I think you'll dig those). One of my favorites: A 1946 feature for Harper's Bazaar called Notes On N.O. (New Orleans). Pictures by Cartier-Bresson, words by Truman Capote. Oh, and who was the art director at Bazaar at the time? Yup. Alexey Brodovitch.

The exhibition includes most of the seminal pictures Cartier-Bresson made during his sixty-year career. And what a career it was! He was one of the inventors of photojournalism and street photography. Maybe the inventor. He fought during World War II, escaped three times from a prisoner of war camp in Germany and then went to Paris to continue making photographs. He was a co-founder with - among others - the photographer Robert Capa of the groundbreaking cooperative photo agency Magnum. He photographed some of the most important events of the 20th century for the major magazines of the time: LIFE, Harper's Bazaar, Paris Match, Vogue, Queen, and DU to name but a few.

H.C.B. as some people called him was also a talented portraitist. He shot nearly a thousand portraits - mainly for magazines - of the most important artists, philosophers, writers, and film directors of his time. Check out the beautiful picture of Alfred Stieglitz sitting languidly on a couch wiping his eyeglasses. Albert Camus, John Huston, Jean-Paul Sartre, Coco Chanel, William Faulkner, George Balanchine, and Simone de Beauvoir were among the people who posed for Cartier-Bresson. When subjects asked him how long the shoot would take he would mischievously respond: "Longer than the dentist, shorter than the psychoanalyst."

You've heard the term decisive moment I bet. It's the American title of Cartier-Bresson's beautiful book from 1952; the one Matisse created the cover art for.

If the term is new to you, check out a picture he made in 1932 called Behind The Gare St. Lazare, Paris (above). In this exquisite photograph Cartier-Bresson snapped a man jumping over a puddle, caught mid-air, but certain to land with a splash in the water. The picture embodies the decisive moment that Cartier-Bresson was the master of capturing on film. It's the precise, magical instant that tells the whole story in a single frame. Taking the picture a half second before or after wouldn't have worked.

The reason I thought of all of you when I went to see this show was because Cartier-Bresson made so many of his pictures for magazines. He sent his pictures to publications like LIFE hoping that the staff wouldn't butcher his images and run them badly. They didn't, as you'll see. He had no interest in working in the darkroom. He often saw his pictures for the first time in a publication. The only thing that mattered to him was capturing the moment. Once he did, like a hunter, he moved on.

There's a tiny part of the show that shouldn't be missed. On the back of one print are countless agency, art department and production department mark-ups. Galassi was smart to include this. It's the sort of thing that would only be on the back of a picture shot by a great photojournalist whose work was highly sought after. Words scrawled in red China marker, agency stamps specifying credit and caption information, cut and pasted newspaper captions, and myriad other markings literally cover the entire back of the print. Those marks are the autobiography of a photograph. In itself, the back of that picture is a thing of beauty.

I could go on and on, but you should just go and see this fantastic show for yourself.

"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" runs through June 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From July 24th until October 3rd it will be at the Art Institute of Chicago. From October 30th to January 30th, 2011 it will be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and from February 19th until May 15th, 2011 it will be at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.


MoMA's detail on the exhibit

The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation

Review from The New York Times

Review from The New Yorker


a nice piece from 2004 on H.C.B. by David Friend for Vanity Fair.

  • Sally Berman

    Great review Greg! Looking forward to checking out the show

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