Written by Kevin Nance. Originally published August 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
In a graduate photojournalism course 25 years ago, we used to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about the identity of history’s greatest photojournalist. The three titanic chroniclers of the Great Depression — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White — were part of the mix. So was Robert Capa, the Hungarian whose indelible images of the D-Day landings and the Spanish Civil War (especially 1936’s “The Falling Soldier,” despite doubts about its authenticity) made him pretty clearly the most compelling war photographer. But the real contest was between an American, W. Eugene Smith — best known for his “Walk to Paradise Garden” (1946), his great magazine photo-essay on Albert Schweitzer (1954) and his “Tomoko Eumura in Her Bath” (1971), often called a Pieta for the 20th century — and a Frenchman, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1955 (Dmitri Kessel/Time & Life Pictures)
The jury is still out, and “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” a major new exhibition that has opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, is most likely to obscure rather than clarify the path to a verdict. Organized and originally mounted by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Atlanta’s High Museum after its Chicago run, which continues through Oct. 3), the exhibition — the first since the photographer’s death in 2004 — includes more than 300 prints from his 60-year career. It’s a broad survey of Cartier-Bresson’s work from the early 1930s to the 1970s, encompassing a protean array of work in street photography and portraiture, along with a generous selection of his globe-trotting photo essays for news magazines. It displays his strengths and reveals his weaknesses in nearly equal measure, both in relation to Smith and within his own body of work.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Paris, Cartier-Bresson was interested in painting, and this shows in his photography career, which began in earnest in 1931, when he acquired a lightweight 35mm Leica camera that allowed him to roam freely with minimal encumbrance. Influenced by Surrealism, Cartier-Bresson stalked the streets in search of the moments of everyday life that, caught in the click of his shutter, could take on expectedly resonant layers of meaning. These perfectly timed freeze-frames, depicting what he came to call “the decisive moment,” are ineffably moving, often oddly comedic and, not surprisingly, among his most memorable images today. There are scores of disconcerting, vaguely louche or downright wacky scenes here — prostitutes leering from their windows in Mexico, dogs mounting each other in Paris, a strange trio straight out of a Picasso painting holding what seems to be an outdoor hairstyling session in Alicante, Spain — that alternately tease and sear the brain.
Cartier-Bresson’s most famous photograph from this (or any other) period is probably “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris” (1932), which shows a sprinting man the split-second before his shoe touches a glassy pool of water. Where most other photographers would choose to show the man splashing down, Cartier-Bresson gives us something better: the moment just before the splash happens, the tantalizing promise, the potential of the event, rather than the event itself. This choice is its own brand of genius, coolly withholding, more cerebral than passionate — the genius of the artist who knows just when to stop, just where to leave us hanging, so that we can imagine the rest for ourselves.
After coming upon several more of these nick-of-time images — such as his second-most-famous photograph, also from 1932, of a bicyclist speeding past the bottom of a winding staircase in Hyères, France — the exhibit visitor may begin to feel that Cartier-Bresson was the most preternaturally lucky photographer who ever lived. But by understanding how to identify the impending moment and position himself to capture it, which in many cases no doubt involved considerable planning and lying-in-wait, he made his own luck. And with one great “get” after another rolled out in front of us in this exhibit, we’re forced to conclude that Cartier-Bresson had no real rival for the title of Greatest Street Photographer of the 20th century. His synthesis of dramatic action and graphic interest (he locates and contextualizes people within abstract patterns created by architecture, streetscapes, landscapes, light and shadow) was never equaled by any photojournalist, including Smith, before or since. (I exclude from this comparison certain photographers, such as the immensely gifted chiaroscuro specialist Harry Callahan of Chicago, who worked more in the realm of art photography than photojournalism.)
A visitor admires the 'Rue Mouffetard (1952) by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Liu Jin/AFP)
Overall, was Cartier-Bresson better than Smith? Even if we pretend that any answer to the question could be anything less than intensely subjective, the evidence would be inconclusive. As this exhibit amply demonstrates, the Frenchman had the lengthier, more prolific and somewhat more celebrated career, and yet, as “The Modern Century” also shows, breadth does not necessarily trump depth. Cartier-Bresson never produced a single image as arresting as “Paradise Garden” or as full of pathos as “Tomoko,” in which a young Japanese girl severely malformed by mercury poisoning receives a loving bath from her mother. None of Cartier-Bresson’s photo essays (including substantial pieces in China, the Soviet Union and the United States, several of which are displayed here in the magazines in which they first appeared) are as expressive and humane as Smith’s Schweitzer essay or his prototypical “Country Doctor” piece for Life magazine in 1948.
That same year, Cartier-Bresson’s work at Gandhi’s funeral is impressive and even stirring but, finally, the view of an outsider looking in. Where Cartier-Bresson showed the fascinating surfaces of things and people, Smith somehow burrowed deeper, capturing the essences beneath. And while Cartier-Bresson had almost no interest in darkroom work (he left that to others), Smith was a master printer, laboring long and hard on his sometimes thin and poorly exposed negatives to produce some of the greatest photographic images of the century.
But there’s no denying the majesty of Cartier-Bresson’s panoramic sweep, or the quirky originality of his impulses, especially in his work from the ’30s and his portraiture. His photographs of famous artists, designers and writers from Simone de Beauvoir and Coco Chanel to William Faulkner and Truman Capote are notably discreet, almost distant, with the subjects rarely acknowledging the camera; and yet his work in this arena is sometimes iconic, for many of the same factors that make his best street photography so memorable. He appears not to have believed in the axiom that the eyes are the windows to the soul, instead relying as always on context — the elderly Matisse reclining with his birds caged and uncaged, the elfin Capote crouched among tropical foliage like some rare hothouse orchid — to tell the tale. Just enough of it, anyway, to leave us imagining what happens next.