Modernity's Decisive Moment

John Haber
in New York City

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century

Henri Cartier-Bresson makes an impact without a single photograph. At the entrance to his retrospective, the Museum of Modern Art maps the world.

It takes three walls and six maps to track his career, spanning at least four continents and forty-five years. Lines and curves run every which way—solid for land and sea, dashed for air, color coded by year—with a breathtaking pace and density. The legend alone boggles the mind, and that just counts legend as in key to the symbols. Never mind the photographer as a legend, too. Henri Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (Museum of Modern Art, 1932)

The display does more than convey facts. It works ever so hard to inspire awe, and of course it does. Museums are in the business of doing that. Yet it also conveys a dedication at once to plain fact, constant motion, and disorienting experience. That pretty much sums up Cartier-Bresson's work and subject matter. It also explains his retrospective's apt title, "The Modern Century."

Poetry in motion

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson almost spanned a century himself, and the Modern covers it exhaustingly, with three hundred photographs. Many appear a second time in display cases, in the original magazines. I defy anyone to absorb it all on one visit. It reflects how he worked—the hand-held Leica, rolls of thirty-six shots, and no time at all in the darkroom. He would number the rolls, send them off, and ask only that the magazine not crop his compositions or distort them by its captions. MoMA has more than one example that defies his instructions, but just as often he got his way.

He depended on his eye to command the scene, not on later editing and processing like Alfred Gescheidt or many today, and yet he sent photography into the world to find its own meanings. His compositions look unique and perfected on the wall. And then they look fresh and chaotic on the page, beside three or four others. If they follow themes, that is just to say that he worked on assignment. To add to the chaos, MoMA's Peter Galassi arranges them according to odd themes of his own—and not always chronologically. One can follow Cartier-Bresson's travels well enough, but one had better stay alert.

They start in 1930, with street life in Paris. After internment in World War II, he branched out further and further. He also becomes more involved with events and the people behind them. He captures Gandhi and then people reaching after his ashes. He shows Nehru haughty and erect in uniform, and he travels to China in 1958 for the Great Leap Forward—just as Marc Riboud, whose photography he nurtured, was leaving Asia. He heads to the Soviet Union after Stalin and early Soviet photography, to New York's financial sector, to artists and intellectuals, and to the cities and countryside surrounding them all.

Call it art photography, street photography, fashion photography, or photojournalism. He practically defined them all, with an influence ranging as far as Raghubir Singh in India. Call it careful composition, or call it poetry in motion with nothing to halt it. The paradox is his idea of the twentieth century—as a period of beauty, humanity, continuity, and wrenching change. It is also a working definition of modern art as at once dense, impersonal, and governed by the artist. He believes he can see it all, and he believes that it will all escape the eye.

Naturally he started on his own, at his most selective. He had mingled with artists and writers in Paris. He had tried his hand at painting, not yet on constant assignment. The 1930s have his best-known museum pieces. A man leaps over his own shadow in a puzzle, and a cyclist tears past echoes of his motion in a spiral staircase. Twisted nudes dissolve in shallow focus.

These earned him the title of his first book, The Decisive Moment. They also show his fondness for Surrealism without the sex and death, and they set a vocabulary for his later work. A man sleeps under a bridge, glowing in sunlight. A fat man in a bowler hat floats above boys in the foreground, below a blank wall irregularly pockmarked by black windows. Here sorrow has a blissful beauty, while the everyday has a disorienting oddness. And these paradoxes, too, describe a vision of modernity.

The pace of change

It takes effort to associate his sleeping man with homelessness. Cartier-Bresson permits sadness and documentary clarity, but not quite grit or despair. He knows which side he is on, much like Walker Evans in America. However, he displays a dispassionate warmth in place of Evans's passionate chill. He also has none of America's love for the vernacular—assuming France back then even had the concept of popular culture. I cannot imagine him, like Evans, collecting postcards.

If he got through the Depression relatively unscathed, war changed everything. He had known his own forced exile, and new demands on his talent sent him out into the world. There he sees displacement everywhere. Disorientation now takes on political and human significance. His scale becomes larger, too, with crowds surging in every direction. He follows postwar refugees in France, bank runs in China during the Communist revolution, and newly independent nations.

One can feel the sweep and pressure of change. Magazine spreads only amplify its pace. Imagine half images side by side, like a comic strip. Publishing was learning simultaneously from the movies and the news. Here, too, Cartier-Bresson takes a deliberate role in photography's changing form. He has his first retrospective at the Modern in 1947, and he founds Magnum Photos with Robert Capa the same year.

The decisive moment is gone, because the world can no longer stand still. That alters the position of the man behind the camera as well. He identifies with faces in the throngs, even as art and disorientation demand a certain distance. Women in Mexico lean out, but through a door. An old Sardinian gestures in welcome, but his raised palm places a barrier between him and the viewer. The gesture humanizes him and makes him familiar, even as it sets him apart

Change carries with it hope. This is modernity after all, and a measure of peace returns in the 1950s. A wedding party smiles in France, men gather in the shadows in Italy, and a woman in Cairo gracefully balances the jug on her head. Yet these are people in strange times, trying to mark out a space for themselves. When others sit on a hill overlooking a Rouen, they could well be watching change unfold before their eyes. When Cartier-Bresson turns to bare landscape, for an alley of trees bursting up, he could be doing the same.

Not everyone is comfortable with change. An elderly member of the French Academy clings to full-dress uniform, and Daughters of the Confederacy cling to white America. A family in Soviet Georgia, their beat-up car beside them and a monastery in the distance, looks more like a refugee camp than a picnic. In each case, Cartier-Bresson neither celebrates their traditions nor mocks their desperation. He takes sides without losing either empathy or detachment. He accepts confusion but not alienation.

Stopping short of Postmodernism

The tension between a growing darkness a determined artistry never goes away. Nudes appear again, but with their heads cut off. A tree branch looks like a grisly injury. Cartier-Bresson's early Surrealism has an even darker side now, when he brings it to politics. A woman leaps above her own shadow—but as part of a forced spectacle under Communism. Someone other than the photographer choreographed all this, and it is not classical ballet.

His editors get the point, if only because it suits a Western agenda. Les maîtres veillent sur les vacances des pionniers, a caption reads: even on vacation, the masters watch over the Pioneers, the Soviet youth group. However, Cartier-Bresson is just as relentless behind the scenes at Banker's Trust. An executive struts his stuff on the steps of Wall Street, while workers sit trapped in the bureaucracy or lean over one another like patients in a madhouse. The audience at party rallies, east or west, seems at an infinite distance from the leaders they have come to celebrate.

Between his fame and his assignment, Cartier-Bresson has access to the rich and famous, from Coco Chanel to William Faulkner. They have more than a hint of Surrealism along with intelligence and high fashion. Each sitter gets a characteristic symbol rather than a personality. Exotic leaves go with Truman Capote's sexuality, a stiff-backed chair with Robert Flaherty, an existential mist with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a cigarette and a dark heavy coat with Albert Camus. Louis Kahn, the modern architect and architect of modernity, thrusts out his hands while explaining everything. Henri Matisse from the rear runs up against his broad behind, his full-breasted model, a Chinese print on the wall, and his attempt to capture them on canvas.

The photographer makes a show of his fiction in portraiture, just as he hides his art at staged political events. He risks glibness or blandness. He surrenders to the customs and fate of others, whereas his early work shaped them. He stops short of the terror or more ambiguous sympathy entering photography with Diane Arbus and others. He quit working entirely some thirty years before his death in 2004, just short of the "Pictures generation" and the puzzles of Postmodernism. All that, too, marks him as the photographer of modernity.

As with Walker Evans, he makes an intriguing contrast with another American, a generation younger. Robert Frank, too, has roots in Surrealism and came to America as an outsider, from Switzerland. He traveled the world after the war and has the same politics, in favor of the outcast and the oppressed. Yet he winnows prints obsessively, much like William Eggleston with Eggleston's "Los Alamos" later, down to the eighty-six in The Americans. He sees individuals as alone, cut off from past or present even in a group. As a photographer, he looks forward, while Cartier-Bresson looks backward to forms that he did so much to invent.

Cartier-Bresson saw his century and saw it well. He cannot always have the intensity of others because he does not have a niche. His retrospective is overwhelming for good reason. In Boston a man in suit and tie shares the commons with sleepers and sunbathers but weary and broken, and the photographer does not editorialize. He knows Modernism and revolutionary change, along with the people swept away by both. In bridging art and popular magazines, he anticipates Postmodernism after all.

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Henri Cartier-Bresson ran at The Museum of Modern Art through June 28, 2010.


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