The World Through a Lens

At the Kunst Haus Wien, the work of legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson brings the trials and tears of the 20th century from the far reaches of the globe into a tangible frame

A cook pauses during his work day at a Texas lunch wagon in Henri Cartier Bresson’s iconic 1947 image | Photo: Kunst Halle Wien

The artist in action, 1963 | Photo: René Burri

A cook pauses during his work day at a Texas lunch wagon in Henri Cartier Bresson’s iconic 1947 image | Photo: Kunst Halle Wien

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Considered the greatest photographer of the 20th century, if not of all time, he was present for a number of pivotal moments, including the Liberation of Paris, the division of Berlin and Beijing’s fall to the Communists, among others.

But Cartier-Bresson was also witness to countless private moments, capturing the intimacy of human encounters across a world of emotions. He worked discreetly, trying to remain unnoticed so that he could record unselfconscious scenes of passion, joy, tenderness, and sorrow. His photos convey a candid instantaneity and empathy for his subjects, but they also balance intellect, vision, and passion, which together convey a larger meaning.

In “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Compass in the Eye”, the Kunst Haus Wien displays a superb sampling of the master photographer’s images taken in the United States, the Soviet Union and India over a period of five decades.

Life and Times

Cartier-Bresson worked by instinct, but it was an instinct guided by a masterful sense for composition. Before turning to photography he had studied painting, which honed his sense of geometry. He was influenced by Surrealism, which gave him an eye for absurd juxtapositions.

He also had the patience to wait for the optimal shot, or what he famously called “the decisive moment”. He achieved it by “aligning the head, the eye and the heart along the same line of sight”. Framing was critical, and he refused to allow his images to be cropped or retouched.

Born into a bourgeois French family, Cartier-Bresson spent decades traveling the world taking pictures. But he preferred to spend extended periods in a given place and immerse himself in the culture. He took his first photos in 1931 during a year spent in Ivory Coast. By 1933, his photographs were being exhibited in New York.

In 1940, Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner by the Nazis. After three attempts, he escaped in 1943 and joined the French Resistance. After the war, he hit the road, spending the years between 1946 and 1947 exploring the United States. In 1947, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a major retrospective of his work. That same year he co-founded Magnum Photos, a socially committed agency dedicated to the highest standards of photojournalism.

The artist in action, 1963 | Photo: René Burri

The Decisive Moments

Cartier-Bresson’s U.S. photos at the Kunst Haus, spanning the 1930s to the 1960s, were shot across the country, from New England to New Mexico. Many bear the archetypal look of their era – back when everyone wore hats – but they are not nostalgic, and he never condescended to his subjects.

Cartier-Bresson’s eye for the absurd helped him to hone in on the incongruities of urban life, and he found infinite opportunities for subtle social commentary, such as his image of a storefront mannequin bride’s frosty gaze into her future. Despite what are often vast gulfs of wealth and status, people can’t help but come into contact with each other in urban settings. Often the contrast in Cartier-Bresson’s photos is understated, as in his street shot of a white man holding an infant eying a black mother carrying her baby.

Cartier-Bresson was equally at home in rural, small-town America, where he encountered both poverty and tradition against the backdrop of a vanishing frontier. Many of his American photos reflect a spirit of national pride, found even in humble circumstances, such as a “God Bless America” monument offset by festoons of tenement laundry instead of the usual red-white-and-blue bunting.

Cartier-Bresson spent 1948–1950 in the Far East, documenting India’s independence and partition, as well as the Communist takeover in China. He travelled widely in India during three extended visits in 1947–48, 1950 and 1966, documenting traditional celebrations as well as the everyday life of beggars, bejeweled maharajas and Muslim refugees fleeing to the newly formed state of Pakistan.

The centerpiece of the Indian photos at the Kunst Haus is Mahatma Gandhi. By fateful coincidence, Cartier-Bresson met with Gandhi on the day of his assassination; minutes later, the great man was shot dead. Cartier-Bresson rushed back to the scene, documenting the immediacy and intensity of the shock and anguish of Gandhi’s followers, and the outpouring of communal grief at his funeral and cremation.

In 1954, Cartier-Bresson was the first Western photographer invited to the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. Once again he ranged across the country, visiting Moscow, Georgia and Uzbekistan; on a return visit in 1972, he traveled to a number of other Soviet republics. Despite restrictions on contacts with ordinary people, he still managed to capture the contrasts between the lives of peasants and Soviet apparatchiks. The encroachment of modernity on timeless ways of life is a major theme of his Soviet work, as well as in his Indian photos: a Georgian shepherd tends his flock in the shadow of postwar apartment blocks; Russian peasants gape in open-mouthed awe at the chandeliered splendor of the Moscow subway.

Capturing the perfect image, Cartier-Bresson said, “is always a question of time and economy.” While composition was crucial to his artistry, ultimately it was his empathy for the human condition that raised him to the height of genius.


Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Compass in the Eye
Through 26 Feb. 2012
Kunst Haus Wien
3., Untere Weissgerberstrasse 13
(01) 712 0495-28

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