The True Henri Cartier-Bresson

Over the years, the famed photographer's work has been the subject of many shows. But a new retrospective in Paris takes a more complete look at the full range of his career.

It has been a decade since Henri Cartier-Bresson died at the age of 95. While the French icon and founding member of photography powerhouse Magnum Photos has had his share of exhibitions and shows, a new retrospective at Paris’s Centre Pompidou gives the most complete picture of the diversity of his wide-ranging career. Most importantly, it willfully dispels the “decisive moment,” a notion (that has now become a platitude) that Cartier-Bresson has been inextricably associated with throughout his career that concerns a photographer’s perceptiveness in being able to capture the perfect set of visual elements within a single frame.

Whereas previous Cartier-Bresson exhibitions have tried to show the unity of the photographer’s vision, the Centre Pompidou argues that his career should be understood through the evolution and range of his work, rather than as a cohesive whole. Diverging from previous monographs, the show doesn’t feature images re-printed specifically for the exhibition. That decision would have forced photos in standardized formats to create a stylistic coherence. Instead, it uses the original prints deemed more revealing of the formal diversity of his work and the epoch in which they were produced. In a similar move, recognizably iconic images are often placed adjacent to lesser-known ones. Organized chronologically—and then thematically within those groupings—the circuit is structured around Cartier-Bresson’s early days (1926-1935), his rising political commitment (1936-1946), and the creation of Magnum and its aftermath (1947-1970s).

Henri Cartier-Bresson began taking pictures in the 1920s. His earliest photo album of gelatin silver prints dates back to 1922 and is displayed in the first room of the exhibition. In 1930, Cartier-Bresson traveled to the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Togo, and French Sudan, and thereafter decided to become a professional photographer.

He evolved a “Nouvelle Vision” style that was characterized by surprising angles and perspectives, channeling Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivism. His attention to composition during this period is quite stunning. Images that depict simple moments, like a succession of round bistro tables at a Florentine café, have a startling geometric beauty. Throughout the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson visited Eastern Europe, Italy, Spain, Spanish Morocco, and Mexico, equipped with a Leica. In France, he frequented the Surrealists, conceptually drawing from their principles of visual subversion. During this period of Cartier-Bresson’s work, André Breton’s notion of “explosante fixe” (fixed explosive) is introduced as an alternative interpretation to the “decisive moment,” celebrating the active energy of the motion captured, rather than a single frozen instant.

Transitioning his early Surrealist aesthetic into his work as a politically-engaged journalist, the exhibition dissolves from a series of images of sleeping individuals into a series of tragic impoverished figures slumped over in similar postures. During this period, Cartier-Bresson’s staunchly leftist leanings sharpened, and he began working regularly for Ce Soir, an evening paper with Communist politics headed by Louis Aragon. For a story about the coronation of King George VI in 1935, Cartier-Bresson rather notably took zero pictures of the monarch. Instead he snapped the English throngs eagerly trying to catch sight of the king. One particularly arresting shot depicts a crowd in Trafalgar Square gaping at the [invisible] charade; below the ledge on which they’re perched, a homeless man sleeps indifferently in a pile of newspapers.

In the post-war days of February 1947, Cartier-Bresson had his first institutional retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. But instead of continuing on the “artist” path, he became a devoted reporter. Several months after his exhibit, he (along with Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert) founded Magnum, the agency that became emblematic of photojournalistic excellence. For over twenty years, he reported from far-flung destinations. He went to India, where he met Gandhi before his assassination in 1948. In 1954, Cartier-Bresson was the first Western reporter allowed into the USSR since 1947. His image of two Russian girls waiting for the tram, while officers slyly gawked at them, covered Life, Paris Match, Der Stern, and other international titles, cementing him as a truly global photographer. Between 1963-1965, he visited Cuba shortly after the missile crisis, then spent months in Japan. Within this time frame, he also took part in the exhibition The Family of Man organized by Edward Steichen.

When it comes to his non-reportage photos, Cartier-Bresson is christened a “visual anthropologist” by the exhibition because of his ability to capture telling behaviors and gazes. A series of his images of crowds are at once funny and frightening, a ripple of behaviors repeated en masse (endless rows of binoculars at a horserace; heaving bleachers alongside a full parking lot at a sports game). The show highlights his tendency to find inherent photomontages “already in the social space, present and ready to be photographed,” such as a troop of displaced soldiers who carry a painted portrait of Stalin in their midst, or a man’s gait mirroring the giant, three-story effigy of Lenin behind him. In a later series, the photographer captures a younger generation in the throes of consumerism: longingly, lustfully examining cars and couches and bicycles.

During the 1970s, Cartier-Bresson left Magnum, which he felt had moved away from its founding spirit, and began doing more drawing than photography in his later years. He remained a celebrity nonetheless; in 1980, Paris’s Modern Art Museum presented a major retrospective of his work, and in 2003 the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson was established in Paris (and is still one of Paris’s best museums). Cartier-Bresson died in Provence in 2004, but this anniversary show reinforces that he is as substantial a presence as ever.