Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 2011

Originally published on www.artsatl.com

It isn’t news that the millions of easy-to-use cameras made over the last hundred years combined with the great social hunger for images—what is photography if not a name for propulsive image consumerism?—have licensed a vast and wanton accumulation of pictures of everyday life as a defining aspect of what we call our modernity.  It also isn’t news that in the foil of that wanton accumulation are skilled observers who consistently yield large quantities of insightful pictures from lived experience, both as amateurs and professionals.  A much smaller number of photographers resist accumulation outright, using photo-technology to make rarities as against the prolix whole.  A very small number embrace both proliferation and rarity as ways of knowing the world through photography, and excel at both.   The career of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)—whose retrospective is on view at the High Museum of Art through May 29th—is a case in point of the irresolutions that attend a vast output containing a great many images of singular power, all in witness to one of the most volatile eras in human history.

Cartier-Bresson’s career is more or less divisible into two periods (or three if we count the drawings to which he dedicated himself for the last thirty years of his life, which are not included in the exhibition):  before and after the Second World War, or more precisely, the period when visual play shaped the equivalent of poetic truth, and when he folded visual play into a larger seriousness, namely a deep knowledge of his own historical epoch and its defining events.  His observational practice is virtuosic throughout, and—in contrast to the preoccupation among many artists today—not marked by an anxiety over repetition of one’s strengths, or self-reinvention.

Cartier-Bresson’s observational practice goes by the name “the decisive moment,” after the English-language title of his seminal 1952 book Images à la Sauvettea deliberately ambiguous French expression connoting a nimble, slightly renegade and vaguely illicit way of doing things, colloquially used to describe selling items on the street.  A more faithful English translation of the title might have been “Images on the sly.”  On one level, “the decisive moment” describes what might be called right timing, the particular success that stems from a picture having been plucked at just the right instant from a flow of instants and other (possible) pictures.  That time should be so conceived owes in no small measure to what photographs made with fast shutters allow us to see, inasmuch as the idea of an ongoing stream of moments runs counter to a philosophical distinction reaching back to antiquity between time as a singular movement or force, a kind of flowing river, to paraphrase Heraclitus, and time as an array of isolated events, a kind of vast rainfall or “a swirl of atoms in the void,” as Democritus imagined.  In the late 1920s, when Cartier-Bresson began to teach himself photography, the investigation of what time looks like had opened onto a new era with the development of professional 35mm cameras, in particular the Leica—Cartier-Bresson’s camera of choice from 1931 until the end of his career—offering a fast shutter in a small body, excellent optics, and great fluidity of operation.  The camera’s keen responsiveness made the interpretation of incomplete action as much a part of photographic practice as the judicious severance of space associated with framing, and the active or passive organization of temporal and spatial fragments known coarsely as composition.  In the hands of a young and mischievous observer like Cartier-Bresson, the Leica allowed for a distinctly spontaneous type of visual exploration.  The result—not only for Cartier-Bresson but for Martin Munkácsi, André Kertész, Erich Salomon, Walker Evans and many other early adopters—was a fresh visuality in which planning and improvisation, intention and chance are united if not altogether fused problems.

As important as the camera was in enabling a new form of thinking about images, Cartier-Bresson’s patefaction of the ways that photographs can seem to abduct time and capture events was less a technological discovery than a narrative one.  In this sense, the decisive moment is essentially the marriage of climax and contingency in the still image, when the whole array of the picture’s elements all fall into captivating alignment:  its shapes and lines describe a geometric harmony, its activity has reached a peak or a turn, and the photographer’s unfolding consciousness of a situation seems wholly in sync with the subject unfolding.  Many of Cartier-Bresson’s early and most famous pictures, made between 1931 and 1934 and collected in the opening room of the High exhibition—the only room of the show dedicated to one chronologic period of his career—spill over with caprice, joy and rebellion, their alignments offered as potent encounters with the unexpected in pedestrian locations.  We find ourselves, for example, in Valencia, Spain, where a child is going through a small ecstasy:  head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth parted, arms splayed, he dwells in what seems an inner vastness that is connected—or more mysteriously, caused—by the light touch of his fingers to a graphic field of scratches and abrasions, as if from a universe of searching left by unseen hands.  Of course we know also that this is play and not merely rapture (would that we knew mere rapture), and that the marks describe not some cosmic phasm but a dilapidated wall, tightly framed to create a hyper-stage lacking both depth and ground.  Key to the picture is the continuous displacement between its explicable and inexplicable elements, the photographer having created a strangely neutralized zone for a charged event.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, Spain, 1933

Or to take another picture from this period, Cartier-Bresson locates us in Madrid in 1933, in a plaza some distance from a mysterious wall.  I know of no better reading of this picture than the one by Arthur Danto in his 1987 piece in The Nation (through which I first learned of Cartier-Bresson as a student), which is worth quoting in full:

The wall is punctuated by windows of various sizes, small in proportion to the wall itself, and seemingly distributed randomly across its surface; it is impossible to infer the internal architecture of the building from the evidence of these openings.  Indeed, the wall looks like a rampart of some sort, its original purpose subverted by squatters on the other side who punched holes here and there, opening the flat expanse that is the foreground of the picture.   The array of square windows conveys the sense of meaning, much in the way in which, though the analogy is forced and anachronistic, the holes in a punch card imply that with the right device the card could yield a piece of information.  Or the squared dance across the surface as if in a ready-made counterpart to “Broadway Boogie-Woogie.”  Or the tiny squares look like the square notes in Gregorian notation, as if someone had composed a chant in the medium of windows.  I have often wondered what the building was and whether it still stands, and though only an eye driven by certain beliefs and attitudes could have been sensitive to its overtones, it could have been the motif of a still photograph made by a heavy camera, requiring a tripod.  But at the bottom of the picture is the crowd of men and boys—I count fourteen—whose bodies are sheared off, in many cases, by the bottom edge of the picture, so that we are conscious, mainly, of the rhythm of their heads, which echoes the rhythm of the windows, like the accompaniment, in another clef, of treble harmonies.  Or it is like two voices in an intricate fugue of heads and windows.  Or it is as if the heads and windows were different forms of the same thing, or metaphors for one another—and in at least two cases one has to look carefully to see whether a certain dark shape is head or window.  Yet this is not some formal exercise; the heads and windows are too insistently in resonance with one another for us not to seek a meaning our rational self denies can be there.  The image is clotted with magical possibilities, and it seems to force an opening into the mind of the artist if not the mind the world—one can barely tear oneself away from the riddles it poses.  The entire exhibition [the 1987 MOMA exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson:  The Early Work] is a set of traps for the interpretive resources of the eye, but Madrid, 1933 has the power of a great musical questioning.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Madrid, 1933

Following the by-now standard photo-historical account, the High exhibition links the complexity of these early pictures—their volatile combinations of declaration and furtiveness, élan and reticence—to Cartier-Bresson’s known interest in surrealism.  To some extent the connection is fair:  when I began teaching myself to photograph seriously some twenty five years ago, Cartier-Bresson’s pictures showed me that the choice to live in seeing (as I put it to myself at the time) is a choice to question and penetrate through the commonplace.  On the other hand, to stake Cartier-Bresson’s early efforts to surrealism strikes me as limited, inasmuch as Cartier-Bresson was less preoccupied with asserting countervailing realities beneath or within appearances than with the poetic implications of displacement (dépaysement) in a distinctly shared reality.  As a young artist, he quickly grasped that the act of removing things from their context and putting them into unexpected relations is not incidental but fundamental to photographic imagination, and—as he would spend the better part of his career investigating in his journalism—what we call knowledge by way of photographs.  He understood as well as any photographer ever has that photography is a non-literal art with an extraordinary capacity to ventriloquize the literal, an indirect art masked in directness, a circumstantial art of contingent truths passing as necessary truths and vice versa.

The greater part of "Henri Cartier-Bresson:  The Modern Century" is dedicated to negotiating the photographer’s work following the Second World War, and is organized schematically according to broad themes that combine pictures from the 1940s through the 1980s—Old Worlds (East, West, France), New Worlds (USA, USSR), Portraits, Beauty, Encounters and Gatherings—plus discrete projects on Dessau, Germany (1945), China’s Great Leap Forward (1958), and the Banker’s Trust Company of New York (1960).  The show closes with a coda that samples each of these themes.  In a nutshell, the exhibition’s thesis is that Cartier-Bresson set down the rules of two games with one key discovery, his journalism expanding the relevance of the decisive moment beyond the province of art alone, in effect proving that the poetics of photographic experiment also formed a poetics of visual non-fiction.  What changes is the addition of one more task to the already demanding problem of creating a halted synchrony of timing, framing and composition from a moving world (whose success is precisely not to negate movement but to confirm and elaborate it), namely the task of choosing a socially significant event and communicating it at the peak of its significance.  Cartier-Bresson’s own formulation of the decisive moment thus joins reportorial and aesthetic acuities:  “To photograph is the simultaneous recognition of the significance of an event, and the rigorous organization of forms that convey it properly.”

The show includes a great many superlative examples of just such simultaneous recognition, albeit with some surprising omissions.  Most notable of these omissions to my eye is Cartier-Bresson’s 1950 photograph from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, in which he addresses hunger in newly independent India.  The historical background for the picture is the devastating impact of British colonial rule on food availability in India:  between 1770 and 1947 India suffered some forty famines, claiming some sixty million lives, including the Bengal famine of 1943-44, which killed approximately four million.  Cartier-Bresson’s photograph comes at the issue in an unusual way.  Against what I imagine many photographers would do in this situation, he does not place the woman and child in the middle of the frame, but instead organizes a loop of associations set along the borders of the frame:  the fingers of the woman’s cradling hand rhyme with the prominent ribcage of the child, which in turn rhymes with the shadows of the palm fronds on the dry ground, which then rhymes with the spokes of the wagon wheel, bringing the eye back to the woman’s fingers.   The picture is replete with religious and political symbolism particular to India.  The wheel is an ancient Hindu symbol for the cosmology of reincarnation (known in Sanskrit as samasara-chakra, or the wheel of suffering), and at the same time is a symbol of the modern Indian state, appearing in the center of the flag of the Republic of India.  The hand recalls the various ritual hand gestures (mudras) that are understood as seals of authenticity of Indian religious practices, but also the open palm with closed fingers, symbol of the Indian National Congress, which led the country to independence and remains the country’s institutional party to this day.  The picture registers grinding suffering as a spiritual recurrence and also a political exigency, the legacy of harsh colonial rule and an urgent political problem for which the dominant party—whose open palm with closed fingers has been literally turned over and pried apart in the picture—offers little succor.  With remarkable economy and precision, the picture spins out facts and inferences that by turns focus and strew attention to the concrete actuality of hunger as experienced in the newly postcolonial context.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, 1950

In many ways this picture models what is broadly true about Cartier-Bresson’s postwar work:  against the sense of excision that characterized his work from the 1930s—what MOMA curator Peter Galassi in his fine catalogue essay terms a “ripping [of images] from the fabric of the world”—now we encounter characters given meaning and purpose by an encompassing and explanatory social whole.  The arch severance of time and place at the heart of “the decisive moment” no longer reads as severance, but the opposite:  again and again we encounter what seem like self-complete worlds revealed with a subtle and dynamic clarity, worlds that are robust, rewarding to look at, plausibly entire.  The resulting images are elegant, refined, and above all, humanistic.  They reassure, even when the news they contain may be bad.  In this show, seeing decades of impeccably wrought pictures issued in disciplined streams makes clear that this pervasive elegance was for Cartier-Bresson a form of journalistic disinterest, a respectably professional method of “covering” any state of affairs anywhere.

But this very professionalism raises a host of questions about Cartier-Bresson’s contribution and legacy as a journalist.  The exhibition’s thematic groupings make clear that Cartier-Bresson understood himself as a reporter in an expansive sense:  very much concerned with the material facts of the world, he also understood his historical moment as a fulcrum between tradition and modernity, and constantly interpreted new worlds in the context of old ones, and old ones as venerable but also vulnerable.  In this sense, Cartier-Bresson was not a newsman so much as an astute traveler through human and newsworthy events.  On the other hand, there is a palpable romanticism in his sensitivity and a sentimentality in his empathy—not a flamboyant romanticism but an oddly impartial one that tends to mute the distinctness of his extraordinary range of subjects.  More than this, with a very few exceptions (one of which is discussed below), Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre contains little conflict and almost no violence, though he produced perhaps the most sustained global account of the most violent century in human history of any photographer of his generation.  What are we to make of this bias?  Does Cartier-Bresson’s commitment to a harmony of forms—of a world in dynamic flux but always in balance, in which grace courses through and around suffering and ultimately redeems it—does this commitment amount to virtuous journalism or amoral journalism or naive journalism, and just what is the difference anyway?  Does Cartier-Bresson’s hopefulness shelter dissimulation and lies unwittingly?  What happens if we look at his output without the prepossessing assurance that artistic mastery underwrites the pictures’ interpretive claims?

One case in point is Cartier-Bresson’s work in the immediate aftermath of the war, in the second section of the exhibition, “After the War, End of an Era.”  Just after the outbreak of the war in 1939, he joined the cinematographic unit of the Third French Army, where he filmed training exercises and the movement of troops along the Maginot line.  In June 1940, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and remained a prisoner of war in Germany for three years, doing hard labor in a variety of jobs.  After two unsuccessful tries, he escaped in the spring of 1943 and returned to France.  He photographed the liberation of Paris in August 1944, and in September he managed to obtain authorization from the French Cinema Board to make a documentary in the spring of 1945 on the return of French prisoners and deportees, with funds provided by the US Office of War Information (OWI), formerly known as the Farm Security Administration.  US Army cameramen handled the filming, leaving Cartier-Bresson free to photograph.  Le Retour (The Return) premiered at the opening night of Cartier-Bresson’s solo exhibition at MOMA, 4 February 1947—an exhibition originally planned to commemorate Cartier-Bresson’s life’s work following rumors that he had been killed in the war.

Cartier-Bresson made what turned out to be his most important pictures of liberation and its aftermath in Dessau, Germany in April 1945.  The city had been home to Junkers Aircraft, which built a substantial portion of the Nazi air fleet, and a camp for Jewish slave labor.  The aftermath of genocide was not Cartier-Bresson’s concern, rather the tribulations of displaced civilians—in keeping with, for example, Leonard McComb’s arresting though now almost forgotten reportage, “Displaced Germans,” published in Life in October 1945.  This exhibition shows a very small number of Cartier-Bresson’s Dessau images (many more appear in the volume Scrap Book:  Photographs 1932-1946, which I consider the best book of Cartier-Bresson’s work), treating his well-known photograph of a woman confronting an accused informer as emblematic of the whole.  Standing in the street between a densely packed, glowering crowd of townspeople, and the provisional military authority seated at a plain wooden table, the accusing woman bares her teeth in scorn, her shoulders and arms thrown back, her gaze intense, while the accused woman looks down with slightly bowed head, partly steeled to the event and partly dazed.  The seated authority figure is impassive, fingering his pen, while the crowd is riveted.  Made at what could be called the dramatic peak of the event, it is a highly ambiguous picture, without a dénoument.  A cameraman standing next to Cartier-Bresson filmed the same scene, which appears in Le Retour as a passing incident, without anything like the suspense of the still image. 


Henri-Cartier Bresson, Dessau, Germany, April 1945.

The scene from the film reveals that the accusing woman in the next instant strikes the accused, and a series of photographs that Cartier-Bresson made just afterward—not shown in the film or presented in the current exhibition—reveals that the accused woman was paraded down the street and publicly whipped by the accusing woman, with others whipped and beaten by yet other accusers.  By itself, the iconic image suggests a controlled and limited confrontation mediated by a controlling authority (behind whom the photographer had positioned himself), when the situation was in fact quite volatile and predominately about vigilante justice.  Or to put it differently, we are looking at citizens negotiating the categories of victim, bystander and perpetrator in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi regime’s defeat—a process that still continues in Germany and across Europe.  By isolating and publicly punishing particular collaborators, the crowd effectively proclaims its own lack of guilt:  sins have been transferred to an individual, who like the ancient scapegoat is driven into the wilderness. 

Stills from Le Retour, co-directed by Henri-Cartier Bresson and Lieutenant Richard Banks


Henri-Cartier Bresson, Dessau, Germany, April 1945

Even with a laborious effort at reconstruction, however, the whole situation in Dessau simply isn’t clear, and I venture that this is because Cartier-Bresson as a journalist didn’t prioritize a searching analysis of conflict.  The exhibition at the High bears out several other instances.  Cartier-Bresson missed the main events of the historic 1947 Partition of India, which uprooted over 12 million people and resulted in the deaths of a million in acts of extraordinary barbarity.  Only passingly interested in the displacements of the subcontinent, he made two short visits to the largest Indian refugee camp at Kurukshetra north of Delhi, which housed some 300,000 people—where he made a single, remarkable photograph of men at calisthenics (included in the exhibition) that does not address anything like the scope of the humanitarian crisis.  By accident Cartier-Bresson was in Delhi when Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948, and produced a trenchant account of the aftermath (only partially represented in the exhibition), but one that concentrates on the unity of the Indian people in grief rather than on the religious and political schisms that led to the murder.

Likewise in 1958, Cartier-Bresson traveled to China to photograph the Great Leap Forward.  Escorted and admittedly limited by the authorities, he produced a set of pictures astutely seen and rich in the textures of events, but deeply misleading.  Seduced by the pageantry of the government-sponsored spectacle on the one hand and the poetry of everyday life on the other, there is little sustained investigation of industrialization and rural collectivization, much less the many problems attending the initiative—problems with food rationing, the forcing of peasants into agricultural collectives, vast (and failed) backyard steel production, the casualties involved in new irrigation construction, low crop yields as a result of untested agricultural practices, food deprivation and mass starvation, the forced export of scarce grain supplies, political repression and punishment for failure to meet production quotas, forced labor, natural disasters, and many other problems.   Altogether, as many as 45 million people are estimated to have died in the Great Leap Forward, but Cartier-Bresson’s pictures suggest no such devastation.  Indeed, his photographs bear more than a passing resemblance to official Chinese government motivational posters—turning Life magazine, which published a 20 page spread of Cartier-Bresson’s work in January 1959, into an unwitting organ of Communist propaganda, even as the magazine thought it was seeing through the propaganda, and as Cartier-Bresson apparently considered himself a non-aligned figure in the Cold War, humanizing the demonized Eastern other of the Western bloc’s political consciousness.


Top:  “Strike the battle drum of the Great Leap Forward ever louder!”  Great Leap Forward propaganda poster, 1959
Bottom:  Henri Cartier-Bresson, China, 1958.  The caption from the January 5, 1959 issue from Life read:  VICTORY DRUMBEATS are sounded by girl leading oil workers on march to oilfield headquarters building to announce that they have exceeded their production quota.  In such parades workers, spurred on by Communist activists, shout slogans based on theme “Produce still bigger, better, more quickly, more frugally.”

A further example of the equivocations in Cartier-Bresson’s journalism is his handling of May 1968 in Paris:  Cartier-Bresson chose to leave the country that month to attend an opening of his new work at MOMA, much of it distinctly saccharine imagery about France.  He returned to Paris in June at the tail end of the demonstrations—the High exhibition contains a single cogent image of the protests—but attempted nothing like sustained investigation of what was immediately understood as a defining moment in postwar Europe.

All of this is not to say that Cartier-Bresson’s journalism entirely lacks bite.  Many of his images of American life in the fifties have a wry edge to them, as for example his photograph of a New York television studio that is, if anything, more sarcastic than a similar image by Robert Frank in The Americans.   Similarly, his photographs of the Banker’s Trust Company offer a subtly captious view of American corporate culture, rife with conformity and loneliness.



Top:  Henri Cartier-Bresson, New York, 1959
Bottom:  Robert Frank, Television studio, Burbank, California, 1955-1956

Altogether, the High exhibition shows that the dialectics of Cartier-Bresson’s life’s work rupture normative distinctions between art and journalism.  Artistic sophistication is both the seed for and the kernel within his visual reporting, just as visual history as he offers it is not so clearly distinguished from visual literature, and in both cases, photographs embroil us in a chain of ratifications that is also the source of error.  Wrestling with Cartier-Bresson’s work in the introduction to the 1982 French language Photo Poche volume on the photographer’s career, Jean Claire writes:

The circumstantial photograph, the document, the machine-like shot never places us before anything other than a sense of “something once occurred,” the feeling of a loss or of a trick played on us, whereas the photograph of “the photographer” instead slips into us a sense of “something is continuing to happen” mixed with a sense of “what keeps happening in the picture is what it was” as it morphs into “that really is what it was!”—and all of this, for a moment, spreads through us a feeling close to the relief and satisfaction given by the work of art.

And after the moment of satisfaction passes?  It seems that the decisive moment as a method works not just on the level of manifestation but also of implication, and that Cartier-Bresson’s pictures expose things that they do not exactly set out to show.  The clear and insistent elegance we behold is not elegance alone and not for its own sake, but a mysterious rhyme for the vast suffering and opaque lessons of the modern century.

[I wish to thank Dr. Jeff Fort of U.C. Davis for his valuable assistance with the nuances of the French texts I consulted.]