Henri Cartier-Bresson: Master of the Instant
At the West Vancouver Museum until August 28
One of the most famous and influential photographers of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson pioneered an approach to his medium that is known as “the decisive moment”. Not for him the large-scale, theory-referenced, and carefully staged photos that have come to dominate the international art scene. Photography, he wrote, is about “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.”
Twenty-five of Cartier-Bresson’s vintage silver-gelatin prints, from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, are on view at the nifty little West Vancouver Museum. The work ranges from street photography to portraiture to documentary images of historical events and their impact on ordinary people. His camera caught both the everyday (a man peering into a construction site, another leaping into a flooded plaza, a working-class couple lounging on a river bank) and the extraordinary (the liberation of Paris, the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, and, as seen here, the repatriation of prisoners and displaced persons from Germany following the Second World War). He also took sympathetic and informal portraits of famous artists and writers, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Edward Steichen.
Born near Paris in 1908, Cartier-Bresson initially studied painting and only took up the camera seriously while living in Ivory Coast in 1931. Almost immediately, he was publishing his photographs and undertaking important commissions. As a photojournalist, he travelled widely and was one of the founders of the cooperative photography agency Magnum Photos.
Why Cartier-Bresson has been so acclaimed and admired is apparent in this small but representative survey of his early work. A few of his best-known images are here, including Hyí¨res, France, which positions us at the top of a twisting, exterior staircase, watching a bicyclist flash by in the cobblestone street below. The blur of bicycle and rider is eloquently framed within a tight congregation of vertical, diagonal, and curving lines.
In Tivoli, Italy, an unseen vendor’s modest stock of fruits and nuts creates a textured and slightly surreal still life. Equally surreal is At the Coronation Parade of George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, in which the upper two-thirds of the photo show an avid and expectant crowd; in the lower third, an oblivious drunk lies passed-out on a carpet of discarded newspapers. Also on view here is Stool-pigeon, Dessau, in which a furious woman denounces a shame-faced informer, and Russian Child, Halle, Germany, a shot of a downcast little boy, released from a concentration camp, dressed in oversize, cast-off clothes, and dragging a big black umbrella.
Decades after these works were shot, it’s still thrilling to encounter them. The show also provides the occasion to consider how our understanding of photography is now subject to rapidly evolving definitions and practices, from spectacular and cinematographic fine art to the bazillions of tiny images generated every moment of every day by nonprofessionals using handheld electronic devices.
Cartier-Bresson, who died in 2004, witnessed not only immense political, social, and economic changes but also an exploding universe of photographic possibilities.