Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer-painter, known for his “unparalleled geometric eye” had an acute awareness of line and rhythm within the frame of a photograph. An exhibition of his long, distinguished career, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now is at Centre Pompidou in Paris until June 9, 2014. As the first retrospective in Europe since his death in 2004, it features over 500 drawings, black and white photographs, archives, paintings and films that span more than 70 years.
Regarded as the father of photojournalism, the camera was Cartier-Bresson’s sketchpad. He began painting and drawing at a young age before taking steps toward photography with his first Box Brownie, and later, a 3×4-format camera. For him, the camera was “an instrument of intuition and spontaneity,” that in a fleeting moment simultaneously raised questions and decisions.
Cartier-Bresson stated that to “give meaning to the world,” a person must be a participant in what they see through the viewfinder. In order to take the photograph at the right time necessitated discipline and artistic proficiency. For Cartier-Bresson, the photographer must recognize in a flash of “fleeing reality” to understand that the image they observe will produce “a great physical and intellectual joy.”
As he continued to develop and experiment, Cartier-Bresson credits Cubist painter and sculptor, Andre Lhote of the Lhote Academy where he attended art school for his distinct approach to photography. He went on to encapsulated everything from the allure of 1920s Africa to Surrealism with Solitary Confinement (1975). He captured the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Cold War. The visionary observed the rise of Mao in China, reported on Ghandi’s funeral in India, witnessed the liberation of Paris and crossed the tragic fortunes of Spanish republicans, all with one click of the shutter of his pocket Leica with the 50mm lens.
In past major exhibitions devoted to Henri Cartier-Bresson, museums and galleries attempted to define his vast working career as a vision of singularity. However, throughout the 20th century, Cartier-Bresson’s photographic work was anything but a singular ideal or of one “stylistic entity.”
The Paris exhibition at the Centre Pompidou illuminates the profundity and diversity of Cartier-Bresson’s work. Though expertly done, his candid photographs originated in fundamentals – without the use of artificial lights or flash, and in black and white in what he termed “the decisive moment.”
The Centre of Pompidou highlights Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most iconic photographs such as Seville (1933), but it also brings less-known works to light including other mediums like drawings and paintings that he produced. The retrospective also highlights Cartier-Bresson’s exploration into filmmaking as second director Jean Renoir with his La vie est à nous in 1936. He went on to film other documentaries including Victoire de la vie (1937), 1938: L’Espagne Vivra (1938) and Le Retour (1944-45) to name a few.
The retrospective chronologically retraces Cartier-Bresson’s journey, while also perfectly illustrating that there was not just one, but several Henri Cartier-Bresson. For this reason, the Centre of Pompidou separated his collection into three segments.
The first part of the exhibit recalls Cartier-Bresson’s work from 1926 to 1935. It denotes his photographic beginnings and excursions across the United States, Mexico and Europe, and his first photojournalism experiences.
The second segment explores his 10-year “political commitment” period from 1936 when he returns from the United States. It reveals a lesser-known side of Cartier-Bresson with his work for the French communist press, Anti-fascism activism, and his documentary films in France and Germany in the aftermath of World War II.
The third portion of the Paris exhibit delves into the creation and closing of the Magnum agency from 1947 to the 1970s, and the last images that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s contributed to the photographic world.
by Dawn Levesque
The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation