If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the 300 images in the Museum of Modern Art's expansive retrospective of the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century should be worth 300,000. And yet.
Cartier-Bresson, along with his colleagues David Seymour (Chim) and Robert Capa, three of the founding partners of the Magnum Photo Agency (dedicated to "chronicling and interpreting the world") made words superfluous.
One thing jumps out at this comprehensive survey, the first at MoMA since his very first museum exhibition there in 1947, curated by Peter Galassi. Though sweetened by over 220 images on loan from the Cartier-Bresson Foundation, it also highlights the enormous strength of MoMa's own fine collection. It is the exhibition against which all others will be measured.
Martine Franck, Cartier-Bresson's widow--thirty years separated them--was a refugee to the US during the war and spent her first four years in Long Island. She is also a fine photographer in her own right, and I invited her to accompany me on my second pass at the exhibition. The show is divided into 13 sections--making it both very didactic and very easy to navigate.
She paused at the mural sized wall maps at the entrance to look at the crisscrossing lines that mark Cartier-Bresson's round-the-world documentary journeys and shook her head. "He had wanderlust before the war and insatiable curiosity after the war. He had ample time, no instructions. He was very free, really his own editor."
Though much of his post-war work was on assignment, he found a way to marry his assignments with the sweep of history. Geometry and lucidity were important for him, and I think he would be pleased with the natural plot points of the exhibition.
Cartier-Bresson had two careers as a photographer, which, although distinct, spill over into one another. The first was in Paris in the early thirties, when he was riffing on surrealism and the power of photography as art. The next was the rest of his life, when he lead the way in photographing the world--it seems like vast swaths of it--up close and personal. Some things you will see and shiver with familiarity: the photograph of Balanchine demonstrating turn-out, a family gathering by the water, nude models at rest during a shoot, a lady with marcelled hair leaning out a window. But there are also those never seen before. All demonstrate Cartier-Bresson's abiding interest in people, the narratives of their lives, and the environments that shaped them, was deep and genuine. "It was never just a job to him," reveals Franck, still somewhat in thrall to the memory of her husband's work ethic.
Franck met Cartier-Bresson in Paris--they were introduced by Gjon Mili, a mutual friend who told her he could introduce her to "someone who could help" with her work. She was still writing her thesis on the influence of cubism on sculpture, but already working at the Time Life Lab. "He encouraged me a lot, he was very generous that way. He told me keep working."
Cartier- Bresson was born near Paris and lived there, and studied formal painting under Andre Lhote. He eventually bristled under Lhote's restrictive rules.
"He was not a docile person, and he did not like to wait on lines," says Franck. His spirit of adventure, which seems never to have left him, took him elsewhere from Lhote's tutelage--to the surrealists and filmmaker Jean Renoir. When he worked with Renoir he worked on dialogue, on locations, and finding actors, acting himself (in the great La Regle du Jeu).
He said he could never be filmmaker "because I don't know how to tell a story," but here I beg to differ. There are no photographs more narrative-driven than those Cartier-Bresson took after the war.
"Henri knew how to frame," she says, pointing out Salerno, 1933. "It's a gem, it characterizes a certain side of Henri, it is just perfection, you realize he was a painter."
Though he came from a bourgeois manufacturing family, his sentiments veered naturally to the left, and in his view, towards anarchy. He was forced into labor during the war at 35 different locations--he barely had time to bury his beloved Leica camera (retrieved, apparently intact, after he escaped). Eventually, Capa and Chim urged him away from surrealism and towards photojournalism, which was to define his, and their, careers.
Did he pose his subjects? Photo sleuths have in recent years accused some of the photojournalists of re-staging scenes. I asked Franck point blank about New York City, 1946, the cover of the catalog, which depicts the arrival of a boat carrying refugees from Europe.
"He did not recreate work," she insists. "It was the other way around. People wanted to pose for him!" -- as in Alicante, 1933 (two prostitutes and a transvestite) or Seville, 1933 (a group of young boys under the ruins of a building).
She points out other favorites: Italy 1933, the highly sexualized image of a man and woman embracing in a pool. "A lot of people don't know these were Henri's close friends he was traveling with."
In Santa Clara, Mexico 1934-5, a man sits with clenched fists over his chest and unzipped trousers; in the corner, a pair of shoes forms a heart. A 1948 image of Prime Minister Nehru with Lord and Lady Mountbatten shows Lady M laughing heartily with Nehru over a shared secret (Franck reminds they were "very close"). Of the favorite portraits: a sultry Truman Capote who was working alongside Cartier-Bresson on assignment for Harper's Bazaar (the source of many of the early commissions), Louis Kahn ("Henri's favorite architect"), Balanchine ("They became good friends"), Coco Chanel ("he started talking about a rival and she shut up like an oyster and he couldn't shoot anymore") still stand out.
Missing, somewhat inexplicably, are some of the famous shots of Marilyn Monroe on the set of the Misfits.
Franck opened her own photo agency in part to keep a certain independence from Cartier-Bresson's large shadow. They married in 1970.
"Imagine being married to someone like Henri; I had to make a little way for myself," she says quietly but firmly. Ten years later she felt comfortable enough to join Magnum. By then, Cartier-Bresson was no longer taking on many assignments, having gone back to his painting.
Finally, before his death, they spoke of his legacy. They agreed she could create a foundation dedicated to preserving his work: "we would not otherwise have been able to take care of such a body of work, the entire heritage of a photographer. Henri had had some unfortunate experiences with the French government, yet he didn't want the work to leave France."
But she says of the foundation, "He didn't want it to be a tombstone." So they also organize exhibitions of other artists.
Here is Charlie Rose in 2000 with the notoriously reticent Cartier-Bresson, who died just four years after this interview at 95.
In it, he indentifies Andre Kertesz as a father figure--but Chim and Capa as co-mentors. Both of them, alas, died young, so Cartier-Bresson carried much of the weight of passing on their photo-essay traditions to the next generation of photographers. As Richard Avedon points out, he was wildly successful, claiming there's not a photographer working today who wasn't influenced.
Photojournalism is everywhere, especially now, on the internet--and everyone has begun documenting their worlds. Sometimes we resist assignments and think they have little value. But not everyone sees the way Cartier-Bresson did, or is able to capture the moment.
"He always said you have to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cream, and the cream is what he was interested in," says Franck.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century continutes at MoMA until June 28. After that, it travels to Chicago (July 24), San Francisco (October 30), and Atlanta (February 19 2011).