Tuesday, June 22, 2010

All Over the GD World

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Juvisy, France. 1938

New Yorkers have one week left to see the Henri Cartier-Bresson show, The Modern Century, at MoMA. I am a big fan of Cartier-Bresson and yet I thought about him in a new way when I read Peter Schjeldahl's review at The New Yorker.
Cartier-Bresson has the weakness of his strength: an Apollonian elevation that subjugates life to an order of things already known, if never so well seen. He said that the essence of his art was “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Too often, the “significance” feels platitudinous, even as its expression dazzles. Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans” (1958) treated subjects akin to many in the older photographer’s work, put it harshly but justly: “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” 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.
Huh. I mean, I'll buy that. On some level, I've always thought of Cartier-Bresson as essentially a graphic designer – Paul Rand with a camera. There is an element of surprise, the decisive moment or trigger that makes the shot, within a rigorously chosen frame, and that's what makes it great. Depending on your point of view, though, that could also make it a little pat, like the visual chuckles or preciousness I often hate in design. Either way (or both), there's no argument that Cartier-Bresson remains one of the greats, with endless influence on photographers who followed him.

Visit newyorker.com to read Schjeldahl's review and MoMA for info about the show. (If, like me, you can't make it to New York this week, there's an exhibition catalog available, and I also recommend a collection of Henri Cartier-Bresson's own writings which Emily gave me several years ago, The Minds Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers.)


Valéry Lorenzo said...

I share your point of view when you compare him to Paul Rand. Cartier-Bresson said when magazine asked him to take photographs : "I go to make a Fragonard".
At the end of his life he stopped photography and only drew. You know that...


Strath said...

I knew that but I had never seen any of his books of drawings – thank you!