Rarely has the phrase “man of the world” been more aptly applied than to the protean photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the subject of a handsome and large — though surely not anywhere near large enough — retrospective opening at the Museum of Modern Art on Sunday.
For much of his long career as a photojournalist, which began in the 1930s and officially ended three decades before his death in 2004, Cartier-Bresson was compulsively on the move. By plane, train, bus, car, bicycle, rickshaw, horse and on foot, he covered the better part of five continents in a tangled, crisscrossing itinerary of arcs and dashes.
In addition to being exhaustively mobile, he was widely connected. Good-looking, urbane, the rebellious child of French haute bourgeois privilege, he networked effortlessly, and had ready access to, and friendships with, the political and culture beau monde of his time.
Nehru, Matisse, Jacqueline Kennedy, T .S. Eliot, Truman Capote, George Balanchine, Coco Chanel and Alberto Giacometti sat for portraits. And he created classic likenesses of them: the elderly Matisse in a dovecote of a studio; the wizened Giacometti caught in midstride like his sculptures; Capote with his amphibian stare; Chanel mummified in a suit of her own design.
The third and crucial constant in his career was, of course, a camera: in Cartier-Bresson’s case, a hand-held Leica, as neat and sleek as a pistol. Whether he was traveling as a journalistic eye for hire or sauntering through Paris of an afternoon, the camera went too. He shot thousands upon thousands of rolls of film at 36 exposures a roll, meticulously numbering each roll before sending it off to be developed — a process he had no interest in — by magazines or photo agencies. (He was a founding member of the Magnum Photos cooperative in 1947.)
Cartier-Bresson seldom saw his work until it was in print, and then sometimes had occasion to be appalled. Suffice it to say that the Modern’s display, with black-and-white prints (he hated color film), framed and hung against pristine white and gray walls, is a far remove from the hurly-burly magazine layouts in which many of these pictures first appeared.
Cartier-Bresson’s dematerialized working method, so focused on the shutter moment, set a model for modern photojournalism, a field he basically invented. Equally influential was the way he approached that moment: with a Zen combination of alertness and patience that allowed him to be absorbed by unfolding events as they absorbed him.
Some of these events were small and sweet: a man sailing over a puddle, lovers smooching, a kid zooming by on a bike. Others were huge. In 1945 he was in Germany to record the aftermath of World War II. (He had spent almost three years as a prisoner of war in German camps.) In 1948 he was in Shanghai when citizens were storming banks for gold in the last frantic days before Communist forces arrived. He witnessed the end of the British Raj. He photographed Gandhi just before he was assassinated, then documented the funeral.
There’s some of all of this in the MoMA retrospective, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” organized by Peter Galassi, the museum’s chief curator of photography. The show unfolds in 13 thematic sections. All but the first are chronologically mixed, and the pictures in that opening section, almost all from the 1930s, are some of the freshest he ever made.
He was in his 20s then. Raised in Paris, he had ambitions to be an artist. He studied with a painter who worked in a late-Cubist style, but hung out in the Surrealist circle around André Breton, soaking up leftist politics and heterodox aesthetics.
In 1930, with his painting prospects looking dim (Gertrude Stein had dropped a discouraging word about his talent), he picked up a camera. An early piece at MoMA, a 1932 shot of a man passed out on a Paris street, might be taken as a formative experiment of street photography. And Surrealism naturally had its impact: his shots of light-bleached plazas and factory walls are pure De Chirico.
After seeing photos of Africa by an older colleague, Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963), Cartier-Bresson headed there in 1930, beginning a lifetime of perpetual motion. By middecade, he had gone from Africa back to France, then to Italy, Spain, Mexico and the United States. Many of his signature works are from this period: Mexico City prostitutes squeezing through narrow windows; a Spanish child seemingly gripped by an ecstatic fit (he was looking up at a ball thrown out of camera range); and a quartet of stout and at-ease French picnickers lounging by a river.
He was given gallery shows, though he already knew he wasn’t making gallery art. He insisted that he wasn’t making art at all. His photographs were — what? A species of social commentary, journalistic illustration, diary keeping? They were certainly ephemeral and unprecious; he meant them for mass publication, for practical use. The brilliantly composed picnic scene was created as part of a campaign to win more vacation time for workers.
The experience of World War II confirmed his view of photography as an instrument for visualizing social change. And it fulfills this role macrocosmically in several of his magazine photo essays, no two alike in format. In 1958 he returned to China to document Mao’s Great Leap Forward in a pictorial series that is thorough without being revealing. He was under constant watch, and the images — upbeat and uptight — reflect this.
But two photo series that emerged from trips to the Soviet Union, in the 1950s and ’70s, have a different effect. They have distinctive individual moments: workers in bulky coveralls clowning and dancing under Lenin’s portrait; a somber Georgian family taking a roadside meal near an Orthodox monastery. But those moments form a whole: a big, perplexingly unresolved portrait of the Soviet Union, at once shabby and mighty, caught between a mania for progress and the pull of ancient tradition.
Tradition, wherever found, was dear to Cartier-Bresson’s heart, and apparently grew more so over the years. In the 1950s and ’60s, he seemed to view it as being increasingly under assault from aspects of modern culture — global commerce, the mass media — that he otherwise found rich and stimulating, precisely because they were modern.
His work softened. Shots of everyday life in France sometimes took on a travel brochure glow. (He gained an international reputation for being the most French of French photographers.) And images that might have been conceived as emblems of cultural excess (shots of St. Tropez, Le Mans, Club Med) felt easy and obvious.
Mr. Galassi has done well to gather works of various dates in each section, thus avoiding a stark comparison between early and late career. (Cartier-Bresson gave up photography, at least officially, in the mid-’70s in favor of drawing.) Chronological blending also helps to create a tonal balance throughout the show between coolness and charm.
What’s missing? Cumulative intensity. It’s present in isolation: in the throbbing 1946 shot of a mother and son reunited and weeping on a New York City dock, and in the exceptionally large, ashen print that opens the exhibition, a 1962 shot of a funeral in Paris for protesters killed in a demonstration for Algerian independence. But in the show over all, surprisingly little tension builds; ideas and emotions are diffuse.
Along these lines, it is interesting to compare, as Mr. Galassi suggests in the catalog, Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of the United States with those taken at roughly the same time by another European visitor, Robert Frank.
True, the two men were operating under quite different conditions. Cartier-Bresson visited America sporadically over several decades. Usually on assignment, he had to deal with editors, tight schedules and deadlines. Mr. Frank, supported by a Guggenheim grant, was on his own clock. He explored the country thoroughly in a few marathon campaigns geared to a self-assigned project, the creation of a photographic book called “The Americans.”
Mr. Frank was his own editor; he controlled — and wanted to control — every detail of his product. He spent a full year whittling down thousands of negatives into a fixed sequence of 83 prints. In that sequence each image assumed a singular force; together, they were morally and emotionally explosive.
Even with Mr. Galassi’s astute groupings, there are no such explosions at MoMA. Should there be? Are we talking about an impassible line that separates photojournalism (Cartier-Bresson) from art (Mr. Frank)? No, to both questions. I think we’re fundamentally dealing with temperaments and preferences. Mr. Frank’s preference was to compress, cut away, create weight; Cartier-Bresson’s was to keep moving, shooting, taking in more and more and more.
Forced to choose between the two modes, I would probably side with concision and density; though there are endless things to be said for the capacious, in-the-now eye and the sheer joie de vivre that were — are — Cartier-Bresson’s pioneering and sustaining strengths. At MoMA, he is so much and so everywhere that he appears to be nowhere. But while slipping from our grasp, he keeps handing us the world.