Last week’s talk at the High Museum of Art by Peter Galassi, the Museum of Modern Art’s fourth curator of photography, introduced Henri Cartier-Bresson’s traveling exhibit, The Modern Century, to a captivated Atlanta audience. I was particularly looking forward to this lecture because of Cartier-Bresson’s influence on my own photographic career. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images were some of the first I fell in love with, especially his early work, when the weight of the world had yet to focus his political goals and he was free to experiment with surrealist notions of photography.
Images such as Place de l’Europe, Gare Saint Lazare (1932) and The Var department, Hyères (1932) display the way Cartier-Bresson was able to capture what has been called the “decisive moment” while at the same time composing the photographs so that every part of the image contains meaning. These simple, yet complex compositions are even more amazing because of the tool used to capture them: a small Leica rangefinder.
As Galassi pointed out during the lecture, Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer for using the small camera in a time when serious photography was executed with large-format or at least medium-format cameras. Cartier-Bresson’s experimentations would continue until World War II, when he would undergo a serious transformation, both personally and photographically.
Galassi spoke primarily of Cartier-Bresson’s biography, providing intimate details that are inaccessible by viewing the work alone. These details help provide the context for the changes in Cartier-Bresson’s work over time. For example, Galassi stated that, after spending many months as a P.O.W. during World War II, Cartier-Bresson adapted his free-flowing practice to concentrate more on capturing the world. Stylistically, Cartier-Bresson remained very close to his early work, but with a more focused subject matter. His penchant for attacking a shot until the perfect moment unfolded brought a directness and immediacy that became the signature style of his Magnum photographs.
Although Cartier-Bresson would continue in this vein for much of his career, his style would subtly shift in later years, especially during his travels in Japan during the 1960s. His later work became more complex and busy. Cartier-Bresson started to embrace the chaotic nature of a scene by including multiple subjects within one photograph. One image in particular, a scene from a samurai reenactment, illustrates this point. In the foreground, there is a Japanese man dressed in a Western suit and tie surrounded by women in Meiji-era clothing; in the background, you can see the “samurai” preparing themselves for the reenactment. This type of juxtaposition between opposites can be seen in Cartier-Bresson’s early work, but not to the extent that it occurs in his later work.
I was able to see The Modern Century when it was at MoMA in New York over the summer, so I was eager to see how the High Museum would install the work. Both museums convey a sense of the scale of Cartier-Bresson’s massive corpus by displaying more than 300 photographs and display cases of vintage magazines throughout the exhibit. To the High Museum’s credit, I believe the installation is more successful in Atlanta than in New York: There is more room for the work to breathe and more space to get absorbed in Cartier-Bresson’s world. At MoMA, the exhibition felt cramped. In particular, the installation of Cartier-Bresson’s photo essays benefited from additional space compared to MoMA’s stacked and therefore confusing arrangement. Even Galassi praised the High Museum at the beginning of his lecture for its beautiful installation. I am very excited that this work will be here for the coming months, and I look forward to returning to absorb as much photographic goodness as I can.
The exhibition, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, continues at the High Museum of Art through May 29, 2011.