Overwhelmed by Henri

Too much.

That was my first reaction after seeing the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. With nearly 300 photographs to view, the exhibit is overwhelming.

In fact, there were times when I had to resist the urge to skip over images that I was familiar with. There are so many iconic Cartier-Bresson photographs that have been reproduced in so many different publications over the years that it can be too easy to simply skim the exhibit.

Bougival, 1956, Henri-Cartier Bresson. All images copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Images

Spend some time with the pictures.  I think it might be better to return for multiple visits, rather than try to absorb it all at once.  If I get the chance to do so, I’d consider a return trip.

This is not a review of the exhibit, for that you can turn to the Chicago Tribune.

Instead, it’s just a few random thoughts and comments on three images.

Cartier-Bresson, of course, is one of just a handful of photographers who are relatively well known among non-photographers. If someone knows the names of any photographers, it’s likely to be Cartier- Bresson, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, or maybe Dorthea Lange.

You get much beyond them and most people pretty much give you a blank stare. But, one of the risks of an exhibit of a photographer whose work is so well known is that it is easy to fall into the “greatest hits” mentality.

  • Family picnicking on the Bank of the Marne – check;
  • Woman denouncing Nazi collaborator – check;
  • Man leaping over a puddle Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris – check
  • Little boy carrying two bottles of wine along Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954 – check
  • Prostitute leaning out of a  door in Mexico, 1934 – check

Because many of the images have become iconic, it can be hard to really see them. Far better to take a few minutes to absorb the often-exquisite composition of a single image.

I’ve picked just three images from the exhibit to consider.

The first is the very well-known image of a French father standing, his back to the camera, while his wife holds his baby up for him to see and probably greet. I love this picture because of the incredible timing. Somehow, Cartier-Bresson managed to capture everything in the perfect split-second when all the elements came together. The two women focus their attention on the baby and the baby and the dog lead the viewer straight to the father. When I look at this picture, I can hardly believe how perfect his timing was. A split second on either side and the attention of the baby or the dog, or both, would be lost.

Hokkaido, Hakodate, Japan, 1965. Henri Cartier-Bresson. All images copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

This is surely a Decisive Moment, captured perfectly in time and anyone who has ever tried to take a picture of either a baby or a dog alone, much less together, has to appreciate how perfect his timing was.

I picked up a small, but terrific book after the exhibit. It is part of a series called “Discoveries” that is  published by Abrams in the United States. The author, Clemont Cheroux, says that Cartier-Bresson became frustrated with the term “Decisive Moment” and later suggested a more accurate term was “Photographic Shot.”

He hunted in his youth and compared his pursuit of the photograph to that of a hunter, stalking his prey, taking perfect aim and then, at precisely the right moment, firing the shot that would bring down the prize.

It’s an analogy that I particularly like, because I think it captures the excitement, the challenge and the adrenalin rush of photographic pursuit. The “Decisive Moment” seems to intellectualize the pursuit. The “photographic shot” seems more honest since the act of photography is a lot more predatory than most photographers care to admit.

In this picture, Cartier-Bresson the hunter waited until the perfect moment and then brought down five separate prey (father, mother, grandmother?, child and pet) with a single shot.

Another shot that fascinated me was a picture taken in Japan in the 1960s. This one because the composition is so unconventional.

Milwaukee County Stadium, 1957, by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier Bresson, Baseball Game, Milwaukee County Stadium, 1957. All images copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Again, relying on the book by Cheroux, I learned that Cartier Bresson had, beginning at 18, studied art at the academy of Andre Lhote. Lhote was an admirer of Cubism and placed a heavy emphasis on composition. While at the academy, Cartier-Bresson came into contact with the Surrealists. Looking at the composition of this picture, made almost 40 years later, is to see Cartier-Bresson the cubist and surrealist.

Would this picture survive a modern-day photo editor? I wonder. Would it be rejected as too unfocused, too busy? Too much going on at once?

It is ironic that although more magazines are published today than at any other time in history, photojournalism as practiced by Cartier-Bresson is all but dead.

Today it is all about the illustration. Photographs are beautiful, astounding and incredibly rendered, but most are meant to grab the viewer for just an instant. With so much competing for attention today…with the world so rushed…no editor can afford to risk an image that cannot be read immediately. Images are pared down to the absolute minimum, often treated as just one more graphic element.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs cannot always be read in an instant. They can demand that the viewer stop and study the image. That is why, I think, they are still fascinating 40, 50 or in some cases, nearly 80 years later.

Finally, for the third picture I chose a scene from the 1950s taken at the ball park in Milwaukee. This is a Cartier-Bresson image, but it could easily be dropped into the middle of Robert Frank’s The Americans, and no one would suspect a thing.

Too many people mistakenly believe that photographers simply capture the world around them without editorial comment. Nothing could be further from the truth. All photography is commentary. There is never anything objective about the photograph and there was certainly never anything objective about Cartier-Bresson.

I think we have a tendency to sentimentalize Cartier-Bresson, focusing on classic images that are somewhat nostalgic. This picture is a reminder that he was far too talented and far too complex a photographer to be so easily categorized.

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  1. Pingback: Overwhelmed unfocused | Kimmelintl

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