The two most important developments in photography in the first half of the 20th century were the emergence of lasting artistic traditions and the rise of mass-circulation picture magazines. Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was a leading figure in both domains.
His original works are considered iconic and reside in many public and private collections -- particularly within the ARTKABINETT social network of independent collectors.
A retrospective exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute -- the first since the photographer's death in 2004 -- draws extensively on the collection and generous cooperation of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris.
In the early 1930s, he helped to define photographic modernism, using a handheld camera to snatch beguiling images from fleeting moments of everyday life. After World War II, he turned to photojournalism, and the magic and mystery of his early work gave way to an equally uncanny clarity and completeness.
Before the dominance of television, most people saw the world through the eyes of picture magazines. Early in Cartier-Bresson's postwar career, his photographs of Gandhi's funeral and the Communist revolution in China were journalistic scoops. But the vast majority of his photographs describe everyday events, for his essential subject was society and culture-civilization.
Cartier-Bresson began traveling at the age of 22. For nearly half a century, he was on the road most of the time, and the geographical range of his work is notoriously wide. Its historical range is just as broadófrom ancient patterns of preindustrial life to our contemporary era of ceaseless technological change. In the realm of photography, Cartier-Bressonís work presents a uniquely rich, far-reaching, and challenging account of the modern century.
He is considered to be the father of modern photo-journalism, an early adopter of 35 mm format, and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the "street photography" or "real life reportage" style that has influenced generations of photographers that followed.
After he experienced unsuccessful attempts to learn music, his uncle Louis, a gifted painter, introduced Cartier-Bresson to oil painting.
In 1927, at the age of 19, Cartier-Bresson entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote.
Lhote's ambition was to unify the Cubists' approach to reality with classical artistic forms, and to link the French classical tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David to Modernism. Cartier-Bresson also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques …mile Blanche. During this period he read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels and Marx.
Lhote took his pupils to the Louvre to study classical artists and to Parisian galleries to study contemporary art. Cartier-Bresson's interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissanceóof masterpieces from Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Cartier-Bresson often regarded Lhote as his teacher of photography without a camera.
Experiments with photography
Although Cartier-Bresson gradually began to feel uncomfortable with Lhote's "rule-laden" approach to art, his rigorous theoretical training would later help him to confront and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography.
In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe, but each had a different view on the direction photography should take.
The Surrealist movement (founded in 1924) was a catalyst for this paradigm shift. While still studying at Lhote's studio, Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche.
He met a number of the movement's leading protagonists, and was particularly drawn to the Surrealist movement's linking of the subconscious and the immediate to their work. Peter Galassi explains:
The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton...approached the street: with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual...The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
Cartier-Bresson matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political environment. He was aware of the concepts and theories mentioned, but could not find a way of expressing this imaginatively in his paintings. He was very frustrated with his experiments and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works.
Affair with Caresse Crosby
In 1929, Cartier-Bresson's air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without a license. Cartier-Bresson met American expatriate Harry Crosby at Le Bourget, who persuaded the officer to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody for a few days.
They found they both had an interest in photography, and they spent their time together taking and printing pictures at Crosby's home, Le Moulin du Soleil, near Paris in Ermenonville, France..Harry later said Cartier-Bresson "looked like a fledgling, shy and frail, and mild as whey."
A friend of Crosbyís from Texas encouraged Cartier-Bresson to take photography more seriously
Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson recuperated in Marseille in late 1931 and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. He became inspired by a 1930 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, this captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive.
"The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street."
That photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.
He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye.
The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. He enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography -- the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation
All works in this exhibition are by Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908 -2004) and are gelatin silver prints. All of the publications on view in vitrines are courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Organizers: This exhibition is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York.