by Susan Doll, pHd
I did know much about C-B prior to spending an afternoon with his photos at the Art Institute, but he certainly enjoyed a life lived large. As a young man, he was smitten with the Parisian café scene of the 1920s, and he flirted with the idea of becoming a painter. He was drawn to the Surrealist movement, which dominated the artistic air of Paris during that decade of bohemians, expatriates, and modernists. I was immediately drawn to this part of C-B’s life, because, after all, what writer, artist, or maverick isn’t charmed by Paris in the 1920s, but later, while looking at his photographs, I realized that knowing his influences gave me a window into his style and content.
Cartier-Bresson finally found his calling in 1932 when he picked up a Leica camera. Small and lightweight with a sharp, fast lens, the Leica made it possible to capture spontaneous action—a woman caught in an offhand moment, a group in conversation, an event in progress. Many of C-B’s photos freeze these moments of time in the most exquisite of compositions--like capturing the poetry of human encounters and giving it visual expression. Art historians have dubbed this “catching the decisive moment.”
A huge timeline on the walls of one room of the exhibition details C-B’s many travels and photographic expeditions. I was impressed with his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time in regard to world events. During the 1930s, he traveled through Spain capturing the people in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which gave him a taste for photojournalism. World War II and a stint as a P.O.W. interrupted his career, but after his release, he quickly returned to photographing life in the 20th century, with the world as his beat.
Henri Cartier-Bresson Photos in The Art Institute of Chicago Collection. Click on photos to go to AIC site.
In 1947, C-B joined together with several photojournalists, including Robert Capa, to form the Magnum photo agency. Magnum regularly served such publications as Life and Paris Match, which were so dependent on images that they were called picture magazines. This type of agency protected the photographers’ creative control over their work by forbidding clients to crop the photos without consent. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a corner in one room where a handful of cropped versions of C-B’s photos were hung. The photos demonstrated how cropping a picture can ruin its impact and even alter its subtext.
The exhibit features several decades of photographs, including an extensive series from Communist China during the 1950s when Mao led the country on a drive toward industrialization and a series from Russia in the wake of Stalin’s death. One gallery is devoted to portraits of famous writers, celebrities, and artists, which was my favorite. Cartier-Bresson felt that photography had wrested portraiture from painting because the equipment could render a technically accurate likeness while the photographer could use lighting, pose, and mood to capture the inner life of his subject. One of the portraits is of Truman Capote, whose very name brings to mind that image of the middle-aged fuddy-duddy with the high-pitched lisp. However, C-B’s photo of a young, attractive Capote surrounded by an exotic tropical plant and looking confidently into the camera brings out another side to his personality--sensuality.
For me, the most thought-provoking part of the exhibit were the collections of picture magazines on display, with pages opened to spreads featuring C-B’s photos so viewers can see them in context. It reminded me that 50 years ago, the average person accessed the events of history and the giants of culture through picture magazines filled with photos taken by artists who shaped the content through their artistic and political perspectives. The photos were presented in lay-outs that were organized and designed by professionals. The captions may have been written by the photographers, but they were shaped and copyedited by editors—still the unsung heroes of the print world because they are the last line of defense against inaccuracy, unintentional meaning, bad grammar, and poor punctuation. Back then, I am sure the everyday reader took Life, Look, Paris Match, and other picture magazines—which they could relax and read anywhere—for granted.
For several days after seeing the exhibit, I couldn’t help but compare picture magazines with photos by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson to the Internet as a medium of news and current events. I seemed more aware of the unedited garbage, poorly written stories, garish celebrity photography, and generic stock shots that my computer screen spit at me under the guise of news or commentary on world events. It made me melancholy.
This exhibit closes October 3, 2010