A decade after the death of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a new retrospective says there is more to his vast body of work than just the “decisive moment.”
From paintings he did as a teenager to photographs of his African travels, the French at play, the aftermath of World War II and the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the exhibition which opens at Paris’s Pompidou Center on Wednesday explores other dimensions of the photographer’s long career.
A founding member of the Magnum photo agency, Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 at the age of 95, renowned for both his images and his famous photographic concept.
“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera,” he told an interviewer in 1957 by way of explanation.
“That is the moment the photographer is creative ... The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Famous examples featured in the retrospective include his 1932 image of a boy behind Saint-Lazare station in Paris with his reflection captured in a pool of water.
Another taken in Barcelona in 1933 shows a portly man in a hat walking past a whitewashed building dotted with tiny windows; a gaggle of unruly children compete for the viewer’s attention in the foreground.
The “decisive moment” phrase was used as the English title of Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book Images a la Sauvette loosely translated as “images on the run.”
Curator Clement Cheroux argues that the photographer’s work cannot be reduced to this one single idea, important as it is.
Cartier-Bresson was “often presented as a man of only one type of photograph, that of the ‘decisive moment.’ We want to demonstrate that there were several Henri Cartier-Bressons,” he told AFP.
Accordingly, images such as his 1962 shot of an unmade bed with a magazine lying discarded on crumpled sheets are contrasted with the drama of his other photographs.
“What matters in a photo is its fulfillment and simplicity,” Cartier-Bresson said in 1994.
The exhibition also sheds light on his contact with the Surrealists in the 1920s, his fierce anti-colonialism, his commitment to the Spanish Republicans and use of the film medium from 1935 to 1945.
From 1947 when he co-founded Magnum Photos, he worked as a photojournalist which meant accepting the various constraints of the job such as topicality.
Arriving in Karachi in December 1947, he was well-placed to cover Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948, even having an audience with him just hours before his death.
Cartier-Bresson captured almost every stage of this momentous event from an impromptu announcement by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the reaction of ordinary Indians to the cremation and scattering of the ashes.
His images went round the world as did his coverage of other world events until the 1970s when he distanced himself from Magnum.
Elsewhere, his talent for plucking memorable images from the humdrum and everyday is traced back to his year travelling in Africa from late 1930.
“Unlike most of the Westerners ... he did not get drawn into ‘exoticism,’” the curator said in exhibition notes.
“(Instead) he tended to photograph subjects like children playing in the street, dockers at work or the efforts of rowers in a boat.”