Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment
Elliott Erwitt: Pittsburgh 1950
International Center for Photography
New York City
May 23–September 2, 2018
For Henri Cartier-Bresson, it was an ironic turn of events. When the first large photo book of the French photographer was simultaneously published in Paris and New York in 1952, its English title, The Decisive Moment, ended up telegraphing a meaning opposite to his intentions. The book’s French title, Images à la Sauvette, literally meaning “images on the run,” perfectly summed up his approach to photography: operating like a stealthy street peddler without a license, capturing with his lens what he found. But the US publisher Simon & Schuster had culled from his introduction a quote by Cardinal de Retz (“There is nothing in this world which does not have its decisive moment”), extracting a catchy phrase (and perhaps a nod to commerce) for the English title. Cartier-Bresson later bristled at the implication when it became known as his brand, for he didn’t believe that a photo could be taken at only one decisive moment.
That is just one of the surprises and contradictions on offer at a new exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP), which revisits the artist’s influential book. While at the museum, with the goal of delving more into the legacy of this famous photographer, I explored a second show of a newly rediscovered trove of work—also created in the mid-twentieth century—by Elliott Erwitt.
The Decisive Moment show opens with wall text showing a jesting Cartier-Bresson quote: “Magazines end up wrapping french fries, while books remain.” Initially I was puzzled by this poke at periodicals from someone who increasingly drew assignments from leading magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar and Life, to chronicle momentous historical events (the flight of refugees in India, a gold scare before the Communist takeover of China). But curator Agnès Sire, who worked with the photographer at Magnum Photos in the 1980s and then helped him set up the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris that she now directs artistically, explained to me that he did not consider himself a journalist, at least in the sense of someone seeking “to capture and then to send [images] to a magazine immediately.”1 Plus, Sire noted the design constraints of magazines imposed by advertising, adding, “If you proposed to a photographer to have ten pages in a magazine or twelve in a book, he would prefer the book.” Or as ICP assistant curator Susan Carlson told me, a book could fulfill his desire for permanence.2 Thus, as much as Cartier-Bresson imagined himself as performing on the run, he wished to produce and present his work under the best conditions possible.
Made at a time when photo books were rare, The Decisive Moment is an elaborate production, drawing on photogravure printing; original cover art by Henri Matisse; a large indulgent format (about 11 x 14.5 inches); text by the photographer; and publishers on two continents, including the arts-minded Tériade in France. Creating a book had been on Cartier-Bresson’s agenda since the 1930s, when Tériade had asked him, Brassaï, and a few other photographers to contribute images of the underbelly of cities. (That book never materialized.) And in the late 1940s, when he toured America with the 1938 Walker Evans book American Photographs as backseat inspiration, Cartier-Bresson had wanted to produce a book projecting his own vision of the country. (That goal was thwarted when designer Alexey Brodovitch’s layouts disappeared.)
Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book—and the show—is physically divided into two parts, before and after 1947. To curator Sire, who first organized the exhibition for the foundation last year, this point in time marks when Cartier-Bresson ventured away from a more “intimate interpretation,” or artistic take, toward a more documentary style—yet a duality in his approach continued throughout his life. Another way to view his work is as the evolution of an artist whose life was punctuated by World War II. While serving in the French army’s photography unit in 1940, Cartier-Bresson was captured by the Germans in St. Dié within the Vosges mountains, but escaped after his third try nearly three years later. Since France was still at war, he relied on false papers (much like an illicit peddler) and directed a film about returning prisoners. In 1946 New York’s Museum of Modern Art planned a posthumous Cartier-Bresson exhibition, believing he was dead, only to learn he was still alive. After he traveled to New York to assist with the show, Cartier-Bresson formed the cooperative agency Magnum Photos with four friends in 1947. This represented “freedom,” a chance to own their negatives—even when taking magazine assignments—and to determine which prints to release, Sire explained.
For the show, ICP mounted seventy-four of the 126 images that appear in the book, and together they serve as a retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’s work until 1952, encompassing his playful street scenes from the 1930s (all composition and light), his portraits of renowned artists and writers (Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Truman Capote), and historical moments. In many photos, Cartier-Bresson captured people in a flash in a private or telling moment, rather than how they might formally present themselves, and in the process offered an essential truth about the human condition. He moved in when they were not looking, noticing—or even awake. “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression,” Cartier-Bresson wrote in his introduction to the book, adding, “through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us.”3
Cartier-Bresson was unafraid to reveal the private moments found in a public space and thus deviate from typical portrait fare. For example, in Barrio Chino, Barcelona, Spain (1933), a shopkeeper is asleep and therefore unaware anyone will see him in this natural (and private) state. Above his head, a faint sketch suggests a hat, eyes, and a nose, mimicking his pose. Viewers are in on the joke (this man hardly imagined himself a photo subject). “The narrow street of Barcelona’s roughest quarter is the home of prostitutes, petty thieves and dope peddlers,” Cartier-Bresson offered as a caption for this photograph. “But I saw a fruit vendor sleeping against a wall in the narrow street and was struck by the surprisingly gentle and articulate drawing scrawled there.”
The private is public again after Cartier-Bresson put a sex worker front and center in Prostitute, Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City, Mexico (1934). This woman is shown not hiding her illicit trade but thrusting her head and upper torso out a portal, staring out at the viewer and almost popping out of the frame. Her unabashed gaze and posture place her at practically the same level as the audience. After Cartier-Bresson arrived in Mexico at age twenty-six, funds for an ethnography project he intended to work on fell through; he remained, picking up modest gigs, exploring and refining his craft, and living by the prostitutes’ quarters.
For Sunday on the Banks of the Seine, France (1938), Bresson shot from behind two women and two men at a picnic, as one is just about to pour wine from a bottle. The composition’s title evokes Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), also set along the Seine. But Cartier-Bresson’s quotidian composition has a more plebian feel, like a film by Jean Renoir, with whom he collaborated. In 1930s France, the socialist government encouraged people to take holidays, according to Sire. With the vantage point provided by Cartier-Bresson, a beholder can enjoy the view and imagine stepping into the same spot to gaze at the river, sitting close to a companion but not too close. A portion of the meal has been consumed, so this marks a moment of being somewhat sated—save perhaps craving another glass of wine. Cartier-Bresson revealed the four in a way that becomes universal.
Cartier-Bresson relied on the same techniques in recording famous people and significant events, leveraging a gesture to speak a truth. This was evident early in his career, when he traveled to England on a newspaper assignment for Ce Soir. For Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, England (1937), he featured in the foreground a sleeping man, lying amid what appear to be heaps of newspapers. That man below is as important to the composition as the more proper British spectators seated or standing over him, waiting for a glimpse of the regent. “The people had waited all night at Trafalgar Square in order not to miss any part of the coronation ceremony,” Cartier-Bresson wrote in his caption, adding, “The next morning, one wearier than the others had not yet wakened to see the ceremony for which he had kept such a late vigil.” Cartier-Bresson’s ultimate statement on the coronation: All humanity matters.
While the art world today is drawn to famous people, Cartier-Bresson was hardly preoccupied by celebrities, Sire said. Yes, he accepted commissions to shoot artists and writers but may have perceived this as photographing colleagues or friends, like the Surrealists he socialized with as a youth. With Henri Matisse and His Model Micaela Avogadro, Vence, France (1944), Cartier-Bresson took a portrait from behind the seated artist in his studio so that viewers can see what he sees—and more. On the left, a model, who frequently posed for Matisse, is seated facing the front, cloaked in a wrap trimmed with fur. Her amply painted lips contrast with the soft white skin that’s exposed as her bodice dips low. On the right, the same image is reversed, thanks to Matisse’s preliminary outline of her curves on a blank canvas. The roll of her hair is echoed in the coiffures of figures in a print or textile high on the wall above her; perhaps it’s one of the Japanese prints that so inspired Matisse. Onlookers see the artist poised to paint, his muse, and a possible source of inspiration. It’s not just Matisse on display but the whole creative process. And even as viewers see inside Matisse’s studio, his distinctive cutout illustration cloaks the book’s cover. This was the idea of the French publisher Tériade, who had collaborated with Matisse on three other books.4
The most powerful photographs are linked to historical events involving the struggle for freedom. Perhaps the most potent is Dessau, Germany (1945), shot at a transit camp where people streamed in from Germany’s eastern front in the wake of the Soviet victory. In it, a woman, her face puffed in fury, accuses another of having been an informant for the Gestapo. Cartier-Bresson shot this still while co-directing the film Le Retour (1945), about returning prisoners. With the exception of an apparent official sitting at a table, all the onlookers, including a man in striped prisoner garb, bear grim expressions. “In a camp of displaced persons waiting for repatriation, a Gestapo informer who had pretended to be a refugee is discovered and exposed by a camp inmate whose face is illuminated by the strong, sharp light of rage,” Cartier-Bresson wrote. This candid moment in two women’s lives, preserved for posterity, can represent the search for justice after the cruelties of World War II.
With Great Britain’s granting of independence to India in August 1947 came the division of territory along religious lines—and tremendous strife, violence, and waves of refugees. The photographer, who had arrived in India that December, shot A Refugee Camp, Kurukshetra, India (1947). Individuals in the foreground are laboring inside the camp of three hundred thousand people, while in the distance scattered human figures and the triangular forms of tents stretch toward infinity. The elements of the composition serve to heighten the intensity of the refugee crisis. “The government and some charitable organizations give the refugees food,” he wrote. “But what gives them hope?”
Cartier-Bresson recorded the last images of Mahatma Gandhi before his January 30, 1948, assassination, and one is included in this show: Gandhi’s Fast, Birla House, New Delhi, India, taken on January 18, 1948. A video made for the exhibition in which the pages of The Decisive Moment flip by reveals a stirring two-page photo spread of the aftermath of the tragedy. The highlight is Gandhi’s Funeral, Delhi, India (1948), with a surge of people pressing impossibly close to the funeral train. Although the book represented a triumph for Cartier-Bresson in presenting his artistry, one wonders with today’s permission protocols how many of these shots could be taken now.
The work of another French-born photographer, twenty years Cartier-Bresson’s junior, is concurrently on display at ICP—also with a midcentury peg. Elliott Erwitt’s new exhibition, Pittsburgh 1950, spotlights the transformation of a single American city. Born in Paris to Russia émigrés, Erwitt moved to America as a boy. At age twenty-two, he was hired by Roy Stryker (who had overseen the Farm Security Administration’s photo project) to document Pittsburgh as it expanded beyond its gritty industrial profile. But four months after Erwitt began working on the several-year venture known as the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, he was drafted into the Korean War. He left behind his negatives and forgot about them. In 2011, a graduate student stumbled upon them in the archives of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
While today Erwitt is renowned in his own right and also a member of Magnum, this set of photos did not land in the public spotlight for six decades. So his publishing of a book about them, Pittsburgh 1950 (2017), and this year’s initial exhibition at ICP feel like the opening of a time capsule.
During the show’s preview, assistant curator Claartje van Dijk pointed out that this cache of Erwitt’s early work shows spontaneity and sometimes a bit of humor (a chicken peers through the store window in Poultry Shop on Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA, shot in September 1950).5 And though ten photographers worked on the Pittsburgh project, Erwitt was the only one not assigned a specific domain, as he recalled; he instead had considerable freedom to roam the streets and shoot as he wished. “It was a unique time to be given an assignment without boundaries or instruction,” Erwitt said at the preview.6 (Nearly ninety and still working, he even helped organize this show.)
While Erwitt shot some areas being demolished, many of his street scenes depict people—of varied backgrounds and ethnicities. In an untitled image from the series Children on Beelen Street, Pittsburgh, PA (1950), a grinning boy points a toy gun at his own head. Van Dijk shared that the image is one of Erwitt’s favorites but, as is the case with all his photos, he leaves the meaning open to interpretation. The gesture was probably meant to be playful, but I found it sobering to view, in light of statistics about gun violence and the challenges that African American boys, similar to the one shown, have faced growing into manhood. Contrast the boy’s mock aggression with the pose of a black girl shyly presenting herself in Beelen Street Overlooking Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA (1950). Her doll’s white face partially obscures her darker visage.
A similar disconnect can be found in Erwitt’s Downtown Hat Shop Window, Pittsburgh, PA (1950), presenting a middle-aged African American woman staring hard at identical-looking white mannequins sporting elegant feathered and veiled headgear. In this image taken through a store’s window, the busts all bear the same expression: eyes cast downward with an air of hauteur, indifferent to her presence.
And in University of Miami vs. University of Pittsburgh Football Game, Pittsburgh PA (1950), two white men stand in a stadium with a Confederate flag by their side. It’s hard to know what these men were thinking, since their backs are to the camera. The photo takes on extra significance today following the recent wave of criticism of such flags as divisive, racially charged symbols.
Both exhibitions awaken thoughts about happenstance; the interruption of life by war; subjects caught amid a changing world in the mid-twentieth century; the struggle for freedom, both artistic and political; artists experimenting with the odds of taking a great photo on the run; and who, by chance, becomes famous in the process.
MARJORIE BACKMAN is a New York City–based journalist.
NOTES 1. Statements by Agnès Sire are from the exhibition’s May 21, 2018, preview talk; a June 1, 2018, phone interview with the author, and follow-up emails. 2. Statements by Susan Carlson are from a June 11, 2018, phone interview with the author, and follow-up emails. 3. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952), from the unpaginated introduction. 4. Clément Chéroux, A Bible for Photographers, a booklet accompanying The Decisive Moment (Gottingen, Germany: Steidl, 2014), 9. 5. Statements by Clarartje van Dijk are from a May 21, 2018, exhibition preview talk; a June 13, 2018, phone interview with the author, and follow-up emails. 6. Elliott Erwitt made this comment during the May 21, 2018, preview talk for his show.