Henri Cartier-Bresson at Centre Pompidou
Henri Cartier-Bresson name is usually associated with the idea of “decisive moment” in photography. His genius for composition, extraordinary visual intuition and ability to capture the most elusive and significant instants as they happened made many critics think of his work as a single stylistic entity defined by this principle.
The retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou Center is to set to show a more nuanced interpretation of his long career (1908-2004).
His work falls into three main periods. During the first, from 1926 to 1935, Cartier-Bresson fraternised with the Surrealists, began working as a photographer and went on his first major trips. The second, from 1936 to 1946, was marked by his political commitment, his work for the Communist press and his experience in films. The third, 1947 to 1970, covered the creation of the cooperative Magnum Photos to the time when he stopped doing photo-reports.
The exhibition displays over 500 photographs, drawings, paintings, films and documents, bringing together both his most iconic works and lesser-known pictures.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic work began in the twenties. it arose from a combination of factors:
an artistic predisposition, unremitting study, personal ambition, a little spirit of the times, personal aspirations and a great many encounters. he studied under André Lhote from 1926 to 1928, learning the classic rules of geometry and composition. he first applied these to his painting before experimenting with them soon afterwards with his camera. his first pictures are thus often structured according to the proportions of the golden section. thanks to his american friends caresse and harry crosby, he discovered Eugène Atget’s photographs of old Paris. starting in the autumn of 1930, he spent a period in Africa where he applied the formal innovations of the new vision in photography, inherited from russian constructivism: unusual angles, extremely close-up shots and an attention to dynamics. a far cry from the ethnographer’s point of view, these pictures are marked by the rhythm of africans’ daily lives.
The attraction to surrealism
through René Crevel, whom he met at the home of Jacques-Emile blanche, Cartier-Bresson began to mingle with the surrealists in around 1926. the elements of chance and coincidence that Cartier-Bresson included in his compositions, like the movement captured in his shots, all evinced his sympathy with this movement, although he was never an official member of it. however, he regularly attended the meetings of the group’s members.
From these associations, he retained a number of motifs emblematic of the surrealists’ world, like wrapped objects, deformed bodies and dreamers with closed eyes. but he was even more influenced by the surrealist attitude: the subversive spirit, a liking for games, the importance given to the subconscious, the joy of strolling through the streets, and lightning speed.
A militant commitment
like most of his surrealist friends, Cartier-Bresson shared many of the communists’ political positions: a fierce anti-colonialism, an unswerving commitment to the spanish republicans and a profound belief in the need “to change life”. his first photo-reports, commissioned by the communist press, dealt with social subjects like the first paid holidays in 1936, or paid tribute to party ideals, like “childhood”. he also covered political meetings. during the coronation of George VI in may 1937, he mischievously turned his back on the sovereign and pointed his camera at the people looking at him.
Cinema and the war
Cartier-Bresson’s experience in films contributed to his political commitment. between 1935 and 1945, he abandoned photography for film, whose narrative structure made it possible to reach a wider audience. in the us in 1935, he learned the basics of using a film camera from a cooperative of documentary makers, led by Paul Strand, who were highly inspired by soviet political ideas and aesthetics. the name of the group was “nykino”, from the initials of New York and the russian word for cinema. on his return to paris in 1936, he began a collaboration with Jean Renoir that lasted until the war. he enlisted in the film and photography sections of the french troisième armée during the second world war, and spent three years as a prisoner before escaping and joining a group of communist resistance fighters.
Between 1944 and 1945, he filmed and photographed documentary images of the ruins of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, the liberation of paris and the return of prisoners from Germany.
The decision to become a photojournalist
The retrospective devoted to Cartier-Bresson by the Moma in new york in february 1947 marked the institutional recognition of his creative genius. The same year, he cofounded the cooperative magnum photos, and focused on photojournalism. from then on, he accepted the constraints of the job, in terms of technical requirements and the topicality of the subjects. his pictures were published in magazines all over the world until the early seventies. some made a particular impression on the public, like the crowd of indians in mourning during gandhi’s funeral, or the “gold rush” of the Chinese. on the sidelines of these events, he also showed people’s daily lives in different countries: in russia after stalin’s death, in cuba in 1963, and in France after the disturbances of may 1968.
in every country he visited for his reports, Henri Cartier-Bresson observed and photographed recurring themes and shared attitudes resulting from the upheavals in society after 1945. like an anthropologist, in direct contrast to the pace and constraints imposed by the press, he carried out a number of surveys focused on certain themes across the board throughout the world. these reflected his pre-war interests and obsessions: choreography and the depiction of bodies in cities, the relationship between men and machines, the representation of power in public space, signs of the consumer society and those involved, and crowds – the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit, and also a highly stimulating exercise in photographic composition.
from the seventies onwards, Cartier-Cresson began to distance himself from magnum and gradually stopped taking commissions for photo-reports. while he did not abandon his Leica, his style became more collected and contemplative. the landscapes, portraits of friends and objects in his personal life that he captured on film evoke the poetic spirit of his early pictures. in a similar return to his roots, he went back to drawing, sketching in the open air or from life. he spent a great deal of time supervising the organisation of his archives, sales of his prints and the production of books and exhibitions. slowness and observation imbue this final period in the work of an artist whose keen eye produced magnificent results, in every facet of his career and in every medium he used.
Text credits: Centre George Pompidou
Photos credits: © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum