Photojournalism Pioneer Captured the 20th Century With Lens

May 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown takes a look back at the life and career of the late French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism. An exhibit of his photos is currently at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: the story of a man who engaged the world through pictures.

The Ivory Coast 1931, Shanghai 1949, Iran 1950, Los Angeles 1960. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson traveled the world for decades, capturing people, places, and history as a journalist, and, in the process, helping to define photography as an art form. His interests, life in traditional cultures, his scoops, the funeral of Gandhi in 1948, and much else are on display in a retrospective of 300 of his works at New York’s Museum of Modern Art put together by curator Peter Galassi.

PETER GALASSI, Chief Curator of Photography, New York Museum of Modern Art: Cartier-Bresson’s — the pictures, the magic of taking one moment out of the flow of life and finding in it a picture that lasts forever, that’s one the things that makes people fall in love with photography.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cartier-Bresson grew up in a well-off family just outside Paris. He studied painting and aspired to be an artist. And when he first picked up a camera in 1931, a handheld Leica, it was the art of photography that he focused on, a man jumping over a puddle in Paris, a boy tossing a ball in the air in Valencia, Spain.

PETER GALASSI: He is arching back to follow the flight of the ball, but the ball is outside the picture. So, we don’t have that explanation of why he is the way he is. And, so, he is transformed into a figure of rapture. This is the art of photography, to be able to anticipate how the making of the picture is going to change what it describes.

JEFFREY BROWN: When World War II came, Cartier-Bresson enlisted in the French army, was soon taken prisoner, and spent almost three years in German labor camps before escaping. When the war ended and the world had changed, so had the direction of his work.

PETER GALASSI: He felt he wanted to be engaged with this very different and rapidly-changing world. And he found, in photojournalism, a — a vehicle for that engagement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before television, before the Internet, before mass tourism, it was photo magazines that millions turned to for a window on the world. And Cartier-Bresson, a founding member of the Magnum Photo Agency, was a leading figure of the era.

His work appeared in “LIFE,” “Harper’s Bazaar,” “The Saturday Evening Post,” and scores of other magazines around the world. One of his first postwar assignments took him back to Germany, and included a famous photograph of a woman being denounced as a snitch for the Gestapo.

PETER GALASSI: This is typical of Cartier-Bresson’s postwar work, is just a handful of characters who, together, the action that is going on summarizes a whole situation, in this case, the anger of the people at the collaborators.

It’s him using the same incredible talent to, instead of making magical, mysterious pictures, to make pictures that are crystal-clear and summarize the situation. And, of course, that is part of the job of journalism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cartier-Bresson was in China just before the communists took over. In 1950, for “LIFE,” he chronicled the new nation of Indonesia. He traveled to the Soviet Union soon after the death of Joseph Stalin, and again in the 1970s, with a bleaker view of everyday life under communism.

He was rarely involved in developing his photos. It was all about what has been called the decisive or the shutter moment.

PETER GALASSI: For Cartier-Bresson, everything that was really exciting about photography was over as soon as he released the shutter. He was one of the most talented photographers ever at making very clear, simple pictures, classically organized, almost like a painting from the 17th century.

But what really mattered to him about photography was, it was a way of engaging the world. Photography was a way of being involved with and trying to understand people, social situations. Anywhere in the world, he could walk into a room, and, within 10 minutes, he would know who was the powerful person, who was the weak person, who was the liar, who was the cheat.

And it was that ability to — to grasp, not just individuals, but the whole social situation. That’s what his photography is about. And that’s what is so remarkable about looking at it, is that you can have that sense of understanding.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to the grand, sweeping moments, there were thousands of quieter everyday scenes, many in the U.S.: Easter Sunday in Harlem in 1947, a “Mad Men”-like scene in a New York office in 1959, a Texas carnival in 1960. And there were numerous portraits of leading cultural figures, Henri Matisse, Truman Capote, Coco Chanel.

Cartier-Bresson, in fact, was not only a man traveling in the world; he was very much a man of it. He lived large and had friends in high places around the globe, including, says Galassi, a young president and his glamorous wife in 1960.

PETER GALASSI: It’s Inauguration Day in January 1960, and JFK and Jackie are in the open limousine. And you can see in this picture that she is, just at this moment, pointing out to the president that person who is taking the picture. So, it’s like, oh, there is Henri.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cartier-Bresson began to turn away from photography in the 1970s, preferring, instead, the drawing and painting of his youth.

Having seen and captured so much of the life of one century, he lived on into the next one, dying in 2004 in Provence, France, at age 95.