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Life Story: Henri Cartier-Bresson at the MoMA

It’s amazing to think that the work of a groundbreaking photographer such as Henri Cartier-Bresson could once be found on the coffee tables of middle class homes accross America, and the world. Image-laden popular magazines such as Life made Cartier-Bresson as ubiquitous as a daily newspaper. Ever in search of “the decisive moment,” the title of his first major book, Cartier-Bresson strung together decisive moments in human lifetimes around the globe to picture for us the story of life on earth, with all its delicate beauty and brute cruelty. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century at the Museum of Modern Art, New York gathers together the first U.S. retrospective in three decades of the renowned photographer. Looking at these images feels like looking at an old family album gathering dust in the attic, but these old stories never get old.

In 2002, two years before Cartier-Bresson’s death, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation was established to collect and study the works of the master. The Foundation lent 220 prints to this exhibition. Of the total 300 prints exhibited, at least one fifth of them have never been seen by the public until now. Concentrating on the glory years of the 1930s through the 1960s, the scope of the show stretches from 1929 through 1989, giving a full 60 years of one man’s view of the world. As curator Peter Galassi writes in the mammoth, masterly catalogue, “[o]ver and over again in the postwar [World War II] work we encounter scenes of comparable simplicity and wholeness.” The eternal optimist Cartier-Bresson lived and captured the modern century of global conflict, but he never allowed it to capture his romantic heart. Instead, he focused on the simple things, knowing that in simplicity lies the path to healing, and wholeness.

The MoMA divides the images into twelve sections—a few chronological for the sake of coherence, but the rest thematic for the sake of understanding. Cartier-Bresson leapt over time with his camera, paradoxically arresting movement in the name of keeping it going forever. These photos, Galassi extols, “celebrate motion by freezing it exquisitely: the heel of the leaping man behind the Gare Saint-Lazare will never touch its watery reflection; the cyclist in Hyères will forever streak past the uncoiling staircase” (image above). Like the Grecian Urn in Keats’ Ode, these figures will be “For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,/For ever panting, and for ever young;/ All breathing human passion far above.” Cartier-Bresson’s art hovers above all breathing human passion doomed to breath its last someday and, instead, gives us life forever young, forever moving, and forever alive in its arrested development.

The whole family of humanity appears in this collection of Cartier-Bresson. From scenes of spectacle such as Gandhi’s funeral pyre in India to the quotidian routine of a banking office in New York, Cartier-Bresson caught it all on film. The insightful portraits of the famous—Camus, Sartre, Matisse, and many others—appear here, of course, but the group portrait of humanity taken by Cartier-Bresson in aggregate over six decades of close observation reflects a more intelligible and valuable back to us than that of any celebrity. Here is a life story that once graced the pages of Life and other popular magazines, but now we can see the grace of the great family reunion that Cartier-Bresson once hoped to unite through his work.

[Image : Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004). Hyères, France. 1932. Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 11 7/16" (19.6 x 29.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.]

[Many thanks to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for providing me with the image above and a review copy of the catalogue to Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, which runs through June 28, 2010.]

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