Progression of Art
Place de l'Europe Gare Saint Lazare
Place de l'Europe is one of Cartier-Bresson's most successful images. The snapshot of a man gleefully hopping over a flooded area in Paris captures the moment just before the man's heel hits the water. The instant is filled with a sort of dynamic anticipation. A hazily-captured building in the distance contrasts with the richly ornamented, spiked fence and the two diverse elements combine in an alchemy of lines, curves, and reflections that creates the urban background for the jumper. Diagonal to the figure is a poster featuring a finely-drawn image of a female dancer leaping gracefully into the air. The poster for a circus called "Railowsky" is a visual play on the jumper's stiff stride that extends in a blur across the picture frame.
The spontaneity of the photo, which was captured in the bustling urban space, the Place de l'Europe outside of the busy Paris train station of Saint Lazare, epitomized the new, fast-paced environment in Europe with its trains, cars, and factories. Modern motion is celebrated by the fact that it is forever stopped, the leaping man will never hit the puddle, the split-second image is permanently frozen in time. The improvements in camera technology allowed for such images to be made and this progress is celebrated in Cartier-Bresson's photographs.
The iconic railway served as the setting for many famous 20th-century painters such as Manet, Caillebotte, and Monet, all of whom had been influential in Cartier-Bresson's own artistic development. This photo would also come to embody what he later described as the "decisive moment" - that instant a photographer decides to press the shutter and the event it memorializes.
Place de l'Europe is one of only a few photographs that Cartier-Bresson ever chose to crop. Ordinarily, he avoided adjusting his work after originally framing a shot and instead embraced unmediated chance encounters, an aesthetic preference and practice that made him one of the founders of street photography. A fragment of the fence that he is behind can be seen in the original shot and partially obscures the view.
Gelatin silver print - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
Hyéres, France is an example of Cartier-Bresson's commitment to a sense of geometry and order. The stair rail leads the viewer's eye spiraling down to the street where the cyclist is frozen in the exact void between the building and the stair railing. The combination of architectural elements and the blurry image of the biker emphasize movement through their spirals, curves, and slight distortion. Cartier-Bresson's taste for construction through a tight, clear system of carefully ordered forms stemmed from his art teacher, Lhote, who was a Cubist painter. Paired with the aid of his Leica, Cartier-Bresson discovered the possibility of creating geometrical constructions in photography, structures that were enclosed within a perfect proportion (2:3) of the frame.
Cartier-Bresson took Hyéres while on vacation in the Cote d'Azure region. In what became his trademark style of casually walking around town looking for subject matter or perching in opportune vantage points, he chose a spot at the top of a staircase from which he could peer down on a small turn in the road. With this image, he succeeded in capturing what the Surrealist Andre Breton described as the consummate photograph: when '"shadow and prey mingled in a unique flash."
Gelatin Silver Print - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
This photograph captures a group of children playing in the rubble in Seville, Spain. Framed by the empty, bombed-out section of a wall, the children interact joyfully and uninhibitedly among the ruins and desolation, in a space that is profoundly unchildlike. They are completely unaware that they are being observed. The ragged edges of the white, stuccoed wall could just as easily be the very surface of the photograph tearing open and inviting the viewer to look on undiscovered. The ambiguity of the picture space is a testament to Cartier-Bresson's engagement with Surrealism, of which visual puzzles were a major feature.
Cartier-Bresson was aware that, if the subjects in the snapshot knew they were being photographed, spontaneity would be compromised. In order to avoid being detected, he painted the shiny parts of his Leica black so as not to draw attention to himself. The voyeuristic nature of the photographer's vantage point - peering at the children from beyond the bombed-out wall - adds a more complex, psychological dimension to the image: the children become, in a sense, actors on a stage. The play itself seems completely incongruous with the set.
Gelatin Silver Print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California
Natcho Aguirre, Santa Clara
This photograph, shot during a trip to Mexico in 1934, exemplifies the heavy influence of Surrealism on Cartier-Bresson's work, an influence that endured, resurfacing at times as late as the 1960s. In the late 1920s, the young artist had spent time at the cafés on the Place Blanche in the bohemian area of Montmartre in Paris. While he admitted that, at the time, he had been "too shy and too young to talk," he absorbed a great deal and retained some of the major themes of the Surrealists such as bodies deformed or in fragments - disembodied limbs, heads, torsos, mannequins, wrapped or otherwise obscured objects, and often bizarre juxtapositions of unrelated objects.
Like the Surrealist painters, Cartier-Bresson's Surrealist photographs are perplexing and, in some cases, disturbing visual games intended to provoke the subconscious mind to make connections that are deeply personal. The erotic nature of this work, captures the "convulsive beauty" espoused by Surrealist leader, Andre Breton. The half-naked man who seems to be writhing free of the remainder of his clothing could be contorting himself in either agony or ecstasy - the ambiguity is what makes the image, at least in part, so deeply unsettling. There is something Christ-like in the crossed arms, conveying suffering or conversely, a peculiar sort of intimate, self-embracing.
Inexplicably, the shoes take on a significance because of their displacement. Cast off and ordinary, in the context of this image, juxtaposed with the mysterious male torso, there is no logic to their inclusion in the composition. Indeed, the uncanny juxtaposition was a hallmark of Surrealism that Cartier-Bresson found irresistible.
Gelatin Silver Print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
Cartier-Bresson's early exposure to and education in painting heavily informed the way he viewed the world and conceived of photographic composition. Juvisy depicts two couples picnicking on the banks of the Marne river on a warm summer's day, a scene that had become almost ubiquitous in Impressionist paintings. The elevated vantage point of the photographer-observer, at the top of the steep riverbank, initiates a kind of cascading visual effect as he glances down at the picnickers who in turn look down toward the boat as it rests on a river mirroring the sky.
The cascading or layered visual effect of the photograph is echoed in the narrative. On the surface, Cartier-Bresson is depicting a familiar trope from the history of art and, in particular, the recent Impressionist movement: people engaged in leisure activities in the Parisian countryside. However, as is often the case with his work, the photographer also engages with the social and political: at the time Juvisy was made, French workers were involved in a campaign to win more vacation time. Cartier-Bresson had in fact been sent on assignment by the left-wing Paris newspaper, Ce Soir, to document the workers' movement. This photograph was never published in the newspaper, but it is now considered one of Cartier-Bresson's most classic images.
Gelatin Silver Photograph - National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
Birla House, India
Birla House, India documents a visibly shocked Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, announcing the death of Mahatma Gandhi to the crowd outside his home. It was an extremely challenging shot for Cartier-Bresson who never used a flash. The dramatic lighting aids in relaying the gravity of the historic speech and the pathos of the moment: the outline of Nehru's head is illuminated while his face remains obscured by shadow; the British officer sitting next to him is similarly lit. The multiple light sources, whose beams cross one another and clash, create a kind of chaotic, layered image that evokes the confusion of that eventful moment.
The photograph is as much a document of Cartier-Bresson's sudden awareness of the historical import of the event and, moreover, of the particular moment it captures: the independence of India from British colonial rule and the tragedy of Gandhi's death. It is a psychological portrait of the photographer and of the nation as a whole in addition to functioning as a visual historical document.
He covered Gandhi's funeral and was one of the last people to speak with him before he died -little more than an hour before he was shot and killed. In fact, his photos are the last ones ever taken of Gandhi. His wife, Mohini, who was friends with the ill-fated Indian Prime Minister's sister, had arranged for Cartier-Bresson to meet with Gandhi in his compound.
Gelatin Silver Print - Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation - Paris, France
Cartier-Bresson captures the chaos of the turbulent transition years of 1948-49 in Shanghai. Life magazine sent Cartier-Bresson to China to document the civil war and unrest that accompanied the political transition from the Chinese National Party, Kuomintang, to Communist rule under Mao Zedong and the People's Liberation Army. At the time, the value of paper money plummeted and the Kuomintang decided to distribute 40 grams of gold per person to stave off even worse civil unrest. In this deeply unsettling image, frantic Chinese citizens have lined up to sell their gold before Mao Zedong's revolution could render even the reliable currency of gold obsolete and impoverish them further.
In the photo, the subjects stand together in a crush of bodies whose desperation fuses them into a single mass. The group stands in for the millions of Chinese citizens who queued up throughout the country. Cartier-Bresson has framed the photograph so that, while only a small portion of the crowd that had amassed can be seen, the viewer can easily imagine the crush of bodies beyond the confines of the picture's borders. The claustrophobic character of this image, captured so succinctly by Cartier-Bresson is all too real as the photo was taken before ten lives were lost in the suffocating crush. As a photographer in the Realist tradition, he imbues the image with his own humanist sensibility, combining social commentary with his own striking sense of candor.
Gelatin Silver Print - Met, New York, New York
Cartier-Bresson photographed the taping of a T.V. game show called, To Tell the Truth, one of several question-and-answer televised contests popular with audiences in the late 1950s.
New York, relying on the centuries old painting trope of "a picture within a picture," presents three separate stories in a single image. The television in the foreground represents the contestant as the viewer at home sees him on their television. Behind the T.V., on an elevated podium, an emcee describes the contestant's actions to home viewers and the studio audience. In the background, three men occupy a stage that can only be seen by the studio audience. The multiple layers of both perspective and representation he creates emphasize the capacity of the camera - whether in motion or still - to manipulate the viewer and, in this instance, create varying versions of the "truth." New York confronts issues of subjectivity and veracity, as do many of the films Cartier-Bresson made after WWII. He was fascinated with the new technology of live television broadcasting and combines technological layers in this single, complex image.
Gelatin Silver Print - Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation - Paris, France
Alberto Giacometti, Maeght Gallery, Paris
This photo reveals Cartier-Bresson's witty side. In this portrait of his friend, the Swiss painter and sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, taken in the Maeght Gallery, the artist unconsciously mimics the subjects of his own work. Giacometti, no more demonstrative than his sculpted companions, carries yet a smaller sculpture whilst clenching a cigarette between his teeth. Giacometti's angled posture echoes the slanted stances of his two most famous statues. Cartier-Bresson manages to convey his friend's characteristic nervousness at the same time that he imposes a sense of elegance on this scene: the figures move in tandem, there is a kind of partnership brought about by resemblance between the artist and his works.
The photo actually documents a busy Giacometti installing the exhibition showcasing the two celebrated sculptures, Grande Femme Debout (Large Standing Woman) and L'Homme Qui Marche (Walking Man). Although Cartier-Bresson produced portraits of other successful artists of the period such as Matisse, Picasso, and Dalí, among others, he and Giacometti had been friends since the mid-1930s and enjoyed a particularly close relationship, which included a shared inexhaustible curiosity concerning the human condition.
Gelatin Silver Print - Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris, France