Henri Cartier-Bresson's “Decisive Choices”

A sweeping new Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition in Zurich pays tribute to the father of photojournalism in a career-spanning retrospective.

Cartier-Bresson 'chooses' his geometry, and waits for life to arrive.
Cartier-Bresson 'chooses' his geometry, and waits for life to arrive.
Caroline Stevan

An image by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi captures three boys running on a beach. A slap in the face for Henri Cartier-Bresson, as he later said about the image, which made him "suddenly understand that photography could fix eternity in an instant." Thus begins the retrospective devoted to the most renowned French photojournalist, organized by the Museum für Gestaltung.

How does one retrace the story of a life, along with a near century's worth of works, in just 220 images? The artist took it upon himself to sort through his images for his foundation's inauguration in Paris in 2003, just one year before his death. In addition to the selection that was then presented at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts consists of several large format prints, as well as a number of films directed by Cartier-Bresson, and magazines illustrated by him.

Each and every one of his photos shines, from those snapped during his stay in Mexico in 1933-1934, to the last ones taken in Europe at the end of the 1960s. The recipe nearly always contains the same elements: the human and the geometrical. First, the Parisian photographer would choose a graphically interesting background, and then he would capture life just as it entered that chosen frame. Like a cat pouncing on a mouse. With their play of shadows, reflections, looks, and symmetries, photos that have already been looked at a thousand times still reveal different levels of interpretation, and force the visitor to reconsider them more closely. "What's important is geometry. Feeling, everyone has that," Cartier-Bresson loved to repeat. He was an observer with a compass for an eye.

The "decisive choice"

When this son of a wealthy thread-manufacturing family published Images à la sauvette in 1952, the English title - "The Decisive Moment"- was misleading. "In reality, there are always several variants of the same scene, and Cartier-Bresson always burned his negatives," says curator Christian Brändle, and the director of the museum. "It is more about a decisive choice than about a single decisive moment."

The facsimiles of the artist's famous Scrapbook presented in the exposition demonstrate precisely that. Thinking that he died at war - when he was actually a prisoner for three years - the Museum of Modern Art in New York was preparing a posthumous exposition in 1945 in honor of Cartier-Bresson. Catching wind of the project, the photojournalist decided to join the organizers. So he arrived in New York in 1946, bought a sketchbook and glued the images he wished to submit inside. Most of the subjects were photographed in three or four different ways, before the professional decided which would become the decisive moment.

The Scrapbook is fascinating to view as it summarizes the career of the photographer starting from 1931, when Cartier Bresson was visiting the Ivory Coast. Its pages are filled with different moments of the 20th century, with images from different corners of the world, and with actors of both farce theatre and opera. "A clear-sighted stroller," according to his biographer Pierre Assouline, Cartier-Bresson pointed his lens at Mexican prostitutes, preachers in London, vacationers on the Marne River in France, street urchins, peasants, or painters Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. The negatives found in this book are his last shoots: "He was a spoiled rich kid and hated developing," remarks Christian Brändle. Some scribbled annotations accompany the negatives. A moving one under an image of a hearse reads, "While looking at this photo, Ghandi yelled ‘death, death, death, death," and a half an hour later he was dead."

The second part of the exposition is dedicated to the world events covered by the reporter. In 1947 Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos cooperative with Robert Capa, David Seymour, and George Rodger. The agency insisted that their photographs be accompanied by the original mention and be printed only full-framed and free of any cropping. The four friends split the photo assignments among themselves, with Cartier-Bresson taking Asia (where he would meet his Javan wife). The Frenchman covered the funerals of Ghandi in India, the arrival of the communists in Beijing, and was the first Western photographer to reach the USSR after the death of Stalin.

The retrospective taking place in Zurich is also interesting for screening Cartier-Bresson's films, which shows the artist's hesitation between different art forms. Nearly ten years after having studied painting alongside André Lhote, Cartier-Bresson decided to take a stab at filmmaking. Having been refused by the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, he assisted French film director Jean Renoir, before going to Spain to film documentaries on the Republican forces. "These films are pure propaganda, but we have decided to project them anyway because they allow us to view the world through the eyes of their author," says Christian Brändle. "They are aesthetically very interesting; no matter where you stop the video, Cartier-Bresson's proportions and geometry are all there." The exhibition includes other films too, such as one on the liberation of Paris, entitled "Le Retour," or one on California in the 1960s. And in 1974, Cartier-Bresson put down his Leica in order to return to drawing.

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Museum fur Gestaltung, Zurich, until July 24.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Eneas

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