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A look at six decades of Cartier-Bresson photos

The Museum of Modern Art has launched a major retrospective of work by a man whom curator Peter Galassi calls "one of the most talented photographers who ever lived."
/ Source: The Associated Press

Born in 1908, the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson came of age when small, handheld cameras were giving artists and adventurers unprecedented access to the entire world. Cartier-Bresson began to travel at age 22 and didn't stop for nearly half a century, always with camera in hand.

Now the Museum of Modern Art — which like Cartier-Bresson himself did so much to define visual art in the 20th century — has launched a major retrospective of six decades of work by a man whom curator Peter Galassi calls "one of the most talented photographers who ever lived."

The retrospective — the first since his death in 2004 at age 95 — features 300 black-and-white prints from the years 1929 to 1989, a fifth of which have never been seen before by the public.

As a founder of the Magnum photo agency, Cartier-Bresson made it a point to witness the epic events of the last century — among them, the liberation of the Nazi camps, the Communist revolution in China, Gandhi's funeral. But the photojournalist always strove to do more than simply record the news.

Galassi notes how his photos reveal an attention to unfamiliar angles, extreme close-ups, and graphic patterns of light and shade. From the chaos around him, Cartier-Bresson extracted timeless images of uncanny clarity — what he famously referred in his influential 1952 book as the "decisive moment."

Look at the 1948 photo from Shanghai of people rushing to retrieve gold from a bank before the city falls to the Communists, and you'll understand much about the tumultuous conditions of the time.

The wide range of material is brilliantly organized into 13 largely thematic sections — although the thrills begin at the entrance to the exhibit, where the museum has blown up maps of the world and charted his journeys across the globe. Many of the original issues of Life, Paris Match and other mass-circulation picture magazines where his work first appeared are displayed in glass cases inside.

Despite Cartier-Bresson's access to people of power and influence, some of the most affecting images are his scenes of everyday life beginning in the 1930s when, he later recalled, "I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to 'trap' life — to preserve life in the act of living."

Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson photo
** FOR ONE-TIME-USE ONLY WITH ANN LEVIN'S STORY SLUGGED: CARTIER-BRESSON EXHIBIT ** In this publicity image released by the Museum of Modern Art, a photograph titled: Hyeres, France. 1932, taken by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, is shown. This piece is part of a retrospective of six decades of Cartier-Bresson's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York beginning Sunday, April 11, 2010 and running through June 28. (AP Photo/Courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson via MoMA)Henri Cartier Bresson/magnum / Courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier

One image from that time was taken from the top of a stairway in Hyeres, France. It captures a bicyclist careering down a cobblestone street, the curve of the road echoed by a similar curve in the railing. As Galassi notes in the wall text, Cartier-Bresson was a master of "turning the world into elegant patterns."

Although he was born into a wealthy family, he seemed at home on the street. One of his favorite tricks at large public gatherings was to ignore the main event to study the spectators — as in a well-known photograph from 1937 of eccentric Londoners at the coronation of King George VI.

But he was also an accomplished portraitist, photographing some of the most celebrated artists and intellectuals of his day, a list that included Henri Matisse, William Faulkner and George Balanchine. When sitters would ask how long the session would take, he would respond, "Longer than the dentist but shorter than the psychoanalyst."

Several galleries feature photos that celebrate the timeless beauty of the landscape, from rice paddies in Indonesia to a row of plane trees in France receding to the horizon. He also lovingly records society's age-old rituals and customs, such as the famous image of portly boaters picnicking on a hillside overlooking the river where their boat is tied up.

But Cartier-Bresson was neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Despite his clear affection for an older, fading way of life, the pictures also reveal how he unflinchingly embraced the modern century in all its sometimes mindless innovation and vulgarity. His pictures from the 1960s document with great precision and humor the coming, cluttered consumer world of home appliances, hair dryers, supermarket signage and Club Med vacations.

One of the best things about this truly great show is the chance to see so many images that were previously unavailable to the public, thanks to a loan of 220 prints from the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris. Although the negatives are now decades old, they still seem remarkably fresh and vital — a lasting tribute to the genius of the man who made them.

The show opens Sunday and runs through June 28.