RAY SUAREZ: Henri Cartier-Bresson spent more than half a century capturing images of people around the world and inspired generations of photographers that followed him. He has often been called "a founding father of photojournalism."
Joining me now to tell us more about his significance is Phillip Brookman, curator of photography at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. And when someone is called one of the great photographers of the 20th century, I guess I have to ask well, did he really change the art form? Did photography look different because he practiced it?
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: I think that Henri Cartier-Bresson not only changed photography, but he also changed how we see the world through his photographs. The most important transition that took place really is in the 1930s when Cartier-Bresson got his hands on a little camera, small portable like and was able to take the camera out into the street, out in the world.
And by doing that, he entered into a whole new world and had access to, really, material that many photographers hadn't really looked at before. Most photography was done in the studio or done with large cameras that took a long time to set up. So Cartier-Bresson was able to capture a slice of life, the decisive moment, as he called it stopping time and seeing really what was happening kind of behind the doors of reality.
RAY SUAREZ: Show us some of these photos.
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: Well, one of the pictures I like a lot this is one here, which is a photograph of children, I think it's in Seville, made during the Spanish Civil War. And here, you know, you see a wall that has been destroyed, one imagines really destroyed in the war. And yet you look through the wall and you see the world of children and here the children are playing in the midst of war, in the midst of the rubble of war. And I think it is that kind of dichotomy between, you know, the seriousness of everyday life, of the war itself and world of children, which is something entirely different
RAY SUAREZ: It seems to me he looked a lot to common life but he didn't condescend to it.
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: No, I think Cartier-Bresson was really interested in life he himself is from a very wealthy family. He was interested in painting from a young age and yet the minute he discovered photography in the early 1930s, you know, he really went out into the world and just embraced it completely. This picture I like a lot, looking through a doorway here. A lot of the images made at this time in the 1930s were made looking through doors and it gives you the sense that you are privileged to see something that's really hidden away behind the streets, you know, and that little camera gave him the ability to go back and look and see what was happening.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's see some others.
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: This picture here is one of Cartier-Bresson's best known photographs: A Man Leaping Across a Puddle. Here you see almost a man taking flight. It looks almost like he can jump right off of the world. What I like about this, you know of course, is the composition, the perfect symmetry of the man reflected in the water but also the tension that he creates between what's real, you know, the real world that you see around, the puddle, the fence behind, and the surreal scene of, you know, this kind of out of focus man leaping off the ground and just positioned there. It's not just the reality that is depicted what Cartier-Bresson himself saw, but it's the reflection, the atmosphere. It's the way you can almost smell the water here in this picture, that he was really interested in.
RAY SUAREZ: Show us an example of the photojournalism and explain why he is given so much credit for being a trailblazer there.
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: Well, after World War II, Cartier-Bresson became a photo journalist. I think in the 1930s he was most interested in the life of the streets, the feeling of the streets, the unreality of it. He was very connected himself to the surrealists during that time. During World War II in the French museum he was captured by the Germans, put into prison. He escaped numerous times and then joined the French underground. After that experience, he became himself more interested in current events, in the events of the world and his work became more journalistic.
RAY SUAREZ: For example?
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: I think one of his great journalistic stories was the funeral of Gandhi in India, and he covered it. Here you see the masses of people, you know, kind of climbing to see the funeral pyre. This was the kind of thing he went on to do more and more, you know, following World War II. In 1947, with Robert Capa and other photo journalists, he founded one of the great photo agencies, Magnum and really was interested in helping photographers take control of their own work in both making it, supporting themselves to make it and then in distributing it.
RAY SUAREZ: Phillip Brookman, thanks for being with us.
PHILLIP BROOKMAN: You're welcome.