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Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century

April 8, 2010

New York, Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1946. The arrival of a boat carrying refugees from Europe reunites a mother and son who had been separated throughout the war.

The MoMA’s retrospective of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s photographs is the first in the United States for three decades and the first since Cartier-Bresson’s death in 2004. I guarantee that his striking photographs will be forever imprinted in your mind after this experience. The exhibit displays some 300 photographs organized into themes such as Cartier-Bresson’s journalistic essays on Communism in China and the USSR, Indonesia’s independence from colonial rule and Gandhi’s funeral to name a few. In addition, his images of every day life: an embrace at a cafe, a deserted country road and children playing in a park, are also on display under such themes as “Beauty”, “Portraits” and “Encounters & Gatherings”. Not only are the photographs stunning in person, the curatorial work is excellent, with the almost overwhelming amount of content organized in an easy to digest and thoughtful way.

Cartier-Bresson is well-known for his photojournalism in a time when magazines were the primary way of communicating current events to the world. In Art History class, we were taught to view him as the father of modern photography, capturer of the fleeting moment, surrealist and futurist in one. The photograph I remember most vividly from those lectures was one of a man leaping over a puddle, his reflection caught on the water (Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932). Instantly recognizable and almost a cliche, this photograph shows how Cartier-Bresson was able to break free from the traditional photograph-as-carefully-composed-painting method of the time and, in his own words, “fix eternity in an instant.”

Sumatra, Indonesia, Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1950. Minangkabau rice fields.

The exhibit can be viewed on the MoMA’s website here, and I highly recommend the site as it is organized according to the themes which were so integral to helping me understand his lifework. The Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson is committed to preserving Cartier-Bresson’s legacy. They are located in Montparnasse, Paris and have ongoing exhibitions of his photographs.

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