Thursday, October 28, 2010

SFMOMA's The Art of Looking 2: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a patrician "puritan pacifist," born to a wealthy family in France in 1908 and dying in the same country in 2004 after a long life as a gypsy photojournalist all over the world. He was possibly the greatest photographer in history, an artist who forged a combination of snapshots that he called "decisive moments" with astonishingly beautiful and sophisticated compositions.

HCB was the eldest of five sons of a wealthy textile manufacturer in Normandy who rebelled at joining the family business, tried to become a painter, had a doomed affair with Caresse Crosby who was the quintessential Bostonian Lost Generation expat in Paris, went to Africa and almost died of fever, and in the decisive moment of his life, met the young photographers David Seymour (the Polish David Szymin) and Robert Capa (the Hungarian Endre Friedmann).

After documenting the 1930s and World War Two separately, they formed a photojournalism agency in 1947 called Magnum which initiated the revolutionary concept of photographers owning the rights to their own images and having some control over them, rather than being at the mercy of magazine and newspaper publishers. A book and exhibit in the late 1980s commemorating the agency (above) is extraordinary, but even amongst the dozens of great photographers, two stick out as being in a different league altogether: Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado.

The current exhibit of over 300 prints at SFMOMA was culled from the collection of the Foundation Henri-Cartier Bresson which is run by his second wife, Martine Franck (above), who was also a Magnum photographer.

If there is any disappointment in the exhibit, it is that the prints are older and small.

The MOMA photography curator, Peter Galassi (above left, talking to a Coastal Travel reporter), curated the show in New York, and explained that the large-scale prints we see at museum exhibits are a fairly recent phenomenon, and that these prints were all archival, hence their size.

The exhibit wanders all over the globe and time, from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. There are sections devoted to photojournalism and portraiture, along with portraits of Soviet Russia and Communist China alongside an early 1960s corporate report photo shoot for a New York City bank.

The art critic in The New Yorker magazine, Peter Schjeldahl, reviewed the show in April when it opened in New York, and had a few major reservations:
"The problem of Cartier-Bresson’s art is the conjunction of aesthetic classicism and journalistic protocol: timeless truth and breaking news. He rendered a world that, set forth at MOMA by the museum’s chief curator of photography, Peter Galassi, richly satisfies the eye and the mind, while numbing the heart."
Be that as it may, Henri Cartier-Bresson was god, and the inspiration for more good (and bad) photographers than probably any other person in history. You should check out the show.


Axel Feldheim said...

I can't wait to see this exhibit. Cartier-Bresson is certainly my god of photography (with Salgado as a close second). I love how he captures fleeting moments of joy as powerfully as he documents important moments of world history. Interesting about the "archival" prints. Since they are from his collection, they are probably deemed more "authentic" than newer, larger prints. The way the photos are matted, it looks like the edges of the prints are hidden. I had thought that Cartier-Bresson liked to print the edges of the negatives so that we could see there was no cropping.

Civic Center said...

Dear Axel: There are examples of both kinds of prints -- matted, and others with the negative showing around the edges to prove there was no cropping.

Ron said...

Great blog, Mike. Much appreciated. So glad you mentioned Sebastiao Salgado who is one my personal favorites along with W. Eugene Smith and, of course, HCB. I would like add one bit of information to the HCB story, if I may. When Cartier-Bresson died I read an obit that said very early in his career his father asked him "when are you going to quit being just a photographer?" HCB said he spent the rest of his life trying to get rid of that "just a" part of his profession. Thank God he followed his calling.

Civic Center said...

Dear Matty and Axel: Your comments don't make sense any more with the revised posts, but thanks anyway.

Dear Ron: Thanks for the HCB "just as" anecdote, and thanks for the kind words.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Hey, mike, no problem. I was commenting while tipsy, so it's best that it gets removed.

But even sober, GO GIANTS!