Wandering through the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit (April 11-June 28, 2010) “Henry Cariter-Bresson: The Modern Century” is taking a tour through humanity. The great photographer had an extraordinary eye for capturing life in so many of its aspects. He focused on the very personal. He did a panorama of developments of nations. He traveled the world, collecting stunning images which conditioned how readers would see the planet when the photos appeared in prominent publications such as Life Magazine and Paris Match, to name two of the most influential.
A total of 300 photographs taken between 1929 and 1989, many of them not seen by the public before, are in this extensive show. There are, for example, his many pictures taken in China that show the trajectory of that country’s upheaval when in 1949 the Communists came to power after the defeat of the old regime. The exhibit contains impressions from his trips to the Soviet Union revealing many of the contradictions in that sprawling society.
Photographs from France are integral to his work and his life, and he captured so much of that country, from shots of ordinary folk to more glossy aspects. He also shot in Japan, although not as many examples are shown as those of China. There are images from Spain, Holland, Italy and, of course, the United States.
Cartier-Bresson also became known as an outstanding portrait photographer. His photo of writer Albert Camus, for example, would seem to be the one that has been used most frequently to accompany stories about Camus or examples of his wok. The artist took a wonderful photo of Truman Capote as a handsome young man. He captured French intellectual notables Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
His shots of people at public events capture the drama of the moment, whether at the coronation of King George VI or at a political rally. Always we see examples of his sense of what makes a scene special by what he chooses to highlight. Oddly, apart from all of his more grandiose work, this talent is indicated by a fascinating photograph of two dogs copulating. We’ve seen such dog sex photographed many times, but what makes this particular one special is the inclusion of two other dogs watching the coupling as if they were voyeurs.
Cartier-Bresson had a varied career, including working in film with the master Jean Renoir. He also allied himself with the political left in the events of Europe during the 1930s. One gets a strong feeling of his desire to show individuals and countries with depth in this exhibit, which is divided into 13 sections.
I strongly recommend the book published in connection with this show, which in addition to containing reproductions of photographs on exhibit has excellent biographical material that informs us much about the artist’s life and talent. The book, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” the same title as the exhibition, is available in its clothbound edition for $75 and in paperback for $50. Both are at MoMA stores.
The impressive exhibit was organized by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Photography. MoMA is at 11 West 53rd Street. Phone: 212-708-9400.