The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Modern Century

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shanghai, 1948.

High strung and hyper aware, with the patience and cunning of a predator, Henri Cartier-Bresson did not take photographs, he took lives. From the moment he first saw a Martin Munkasi photograph of African boys running on the beach, Cartier-Bresson understood the camera’s potential to capture the flow of movement. But it was his innate ability to put himself in synch with life that fulfilled the camera’s promise.

Possessing an energy that could not be contained, certainly not in the studio, the young Cartier-Bresson needed the world. And so, despite an early interest in painting, into the world he went, armed by great good fortune with the Leica. It was a brilliant solution to the conflict within him between Art and Life. Whatever he did, he said to someone when he was young, it would be “special and superb”.

Unlike more introverted photographers, he loathed the darkroom and had no interest in making prints or experimenting with the medium. From the get-go, he was a hunter. A relentless stalker of ‘life’ whose aim was to catch it in ‘the moment of being lived’, his images proof that that moment existed and that he was there. In the postwar era of decolonization he seemed to be ‘there’ everywhere, criss-crossing continents and oceans, arriving just in time for the latest crisis to conveniently unfold.

Yet Cartier-Bresson, the photojournalist, was less a historian than a commentator, an essayist in the tradition of Montaigne and les philosophes. If his genius was all his own, his education was European. Building from the bedrock of a traditional French intellectual education, an early exposure to the Surrealists helped shape his intellect, while exposure to the Cubists helped shape his vision. All of it combined with his painterly training, his hunting instincts, his fathomless energy, and his athlete’s timing to make him a great artist.

His brand of photojournalism fell out of critical and curatorial favor in the l970’s and 80’s and Cartier-Bresson had to be reinvented as a Surrealist photographer, placing undue emphasis on his early work and its relation to Andre Breton and his circle.

Now, in MOMA’s exhibit, Henri-Cartier Bresson, The Modern Century, the circle comes full round and the 30 odd years he spent witnessing the great events of his time take center stage once more, restoring him to his rightful place as the undisputed Master of 20th century photojournalism.

No other medium is so precise about time. No other photographer so caught up in it. Aside from his much vaunted ‘geometry’, the painterly eye for form he seemed to prize above all else, he possessed the reflexes of a world class athlete. It was this combination of peerless timing and sophisticated form that set him apart from his contemporaries. Only Kertesz, who preceded him, was as formally brilliant, but Kertesz’s career was sidetracked. American photographers, who always had strong anti-formalist tendencies, were much less sophisticated, and his European counterparts were simply not as good.

His style surfaced almost instantly, along with an ability to take photos in the middle of a riot, on the run and practically in the dark while constructing bravura foreground-background compositions in which significant activity occurs simultaneously on several planes.

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In between the great images, famous now for decades, there is the lesser work. These second rank photos form the connective tissue holding together his photo essays. In them we see not Cartier-Bresson the artist, so much as Cartier-Bresson the working professional—a category he detested but which nonetheless applies.

Perhaps most profoundly, this work bears witness to the sheer intelligence that lay behind the lens, the astute critical eye commenting upon the social and cultural context it was recording.

We see that critical mind operating in one image after another. In the “Banker’s Trust Story” — one of the most revealing explorations of corporate culture ever made, in an image taken at a changing station in Japan where the woman changes her baby but the man changes his film, or in another taken of a black boy, uneasily loitering outside an American circus, his white counterpart standing there full of confidence. Again and again key details are juxtaposed to reveal underlying social realties.

In the later years his work displayed somewhat looser compositions (influenced perhaps by Garry Winogrand and the American School, who were in turn influenced by Robert Frank, who was, of course, influenced by Cartier-Bresson,) but by the 1970’s he was “repeating himself” as Andre Kertesz once said to me. He must have known it, since he turned to drawing for the last twenty odd years of his life. Even so, the first thing that strikes you upon entering this exhibit is the sheer quantity of the work done, the massiveness of his legacy.

MOMA does a superb job of displaying an excellent cross-section of that legacy. The prints vary from the vintage to the contemporary, the older ones considerably flatter in tone than the more recent, especially in the original magazine spreads.

Yet if you look closely at these prints you see how few have the absolute technical sharpness and high polish demanded by American photo editors of the time. Although he was published in Life and Holiday, he was a profoundly European photographer possessing their more sophisticated formal sense and taste for complexity.

The final irony of The Modern Century is that Cartier-Bresson was not especially interested in modernity; like Rimbaud and Gauguin before him, he was interested in the Other: the exotic and far away and fast disappearing peoples of the world. And unlike Robert Frank who revealed the bleakness of American life, or even Walker Evans who photographed the detritus of the modern world, Cartier-Bresson was a secret romantic with none of the sneering contempt of Winogrand and his generation. In Henri Cartier-Bresson predation was transformed into mystic union and there was a kind of love in him that has all but gone out of photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Modern Century

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