Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Europe

What probably sets apart a photographer is the power of discernment, the capacity to turn the smallest detail into a world of meaning and beauty. The photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson currently on view at the Benaki Museum unveil this charismatic vision in all its riveting effect. A touring exhibition across Europe, «The Europeans» is in fact a project of 40 years that Bresson began in 1930 – as a fledgling photographer at the time – and completed in the 1970s. It documents the face of Europe, its people and moods, its social stratifications but also its transformations through its most tumultuous periods in history. The exhibition also reveals Cartier-Bresson’s human-interest photography, his deep compassion for human beings and his wonderfully sensitive understanding of existence. His project, «The Europeans,» was first published in an album by Teriade in 1955 with a cover designed by Juan Miro. Three years earlier, Teriade had published «Images a la sauvette» (Images on the Run), Cartier-Bresson’s chronicle of his travels in China, India and other distant places of the world. The album had a drawing by Matisse on its cover and also contained Cartier-Bresson’s «L’Instant decisif» (the decisive moment), an essay that was crucial in throwing light both on his work and on the theory of photography. («The Decisive Moment» was also the title of the photographer’s show at the Louvre in 1955, the first photographic exhibition held at the museum). In the essay, the photographer wrote: «Photography is an instantaneous operation, both sensory and intellectual – an expression of the world in visual terms and also a perceptual quest and interrogation. It is at one and the same time the recognition of a fact in a fraction of a second and the rigorous arrangement of the forms visually perceived which gives to that fact expression and significance.» The «decisive moment» is this instantaneous merging of form and content, the moment when an image’s narrative and its visual properties both reach their highest expression. Capturing this fraction of a moment was, for Cartier-Bresson, what good photography was about. His quest for it is one of the reasons that Cartier-Bresson is considered to have elevated snapshot photography (he used a 35mm Leica camera) to the status of refined art. It is also what explains the wonderful balance in his pictures, the unity of narrative and composition and the almost magical way in which one animates the other. Cartier-Bresson’s pictures raise photojournalim to the level of artistic photography while also injecting artistic photography with social content. Having lived through the war – he was actually held captive by the Germans and later escaped to join the resistance – Cartier-Bresson appreciated social documentation in photography. He actually placed much significance on the social role of photography and never made the stories he told through his camera seem obscure. But he also believed that a powerful subject-matter did not suffice and that the genius of the artist lay in how he reflected things and not in the stories he chose. With an unmistakable eye for design and composition, Cartier-Bresson valued the beauty of an image’s formal properties. His eye for design and composition is what turns the most humble and miserable subject-matter in his images into something both grand and elegant. It is a distanced but emotional perspective on the world, a cerebral play on form, light and texture that yet contains a deep empathy for human stories. In a picture taken in Athens in 1953, for example, the figures in profile of two elderly women are set against the frontal statues of the Caryatids that adorn a building. It is likely that through this humorous, almost jarring juxtaposition of form, Cartier-Bresson is also suggesting the relationship of modern Greece with its past. What is also striking about Cartier-Bresson’s images is that although perfectly designed and balanced, they are wonderful in the way they arrest movement. Light, shadow, the relationships between shapes: They all evoke movement and energy. Cartier-Bresson’s training as an artist may be one of the reasons that explains his aestheticized approach. The son of a prosperous, middle-class French family, Cartier-Bresson (born in 1908) studied painting with Andre Lhote and during his youth was associated with the French surrealists (he also illustrated some of Andre Breton’s writings). But more than his artistic training and surroundings, it was probably his extensive and adventurous travels all over the world that had the greatest impact on him. As early as 1931, he spent a year in the Ivory Coast and a few years later spent a year in Mexico on an ethnographic mission. Before the outbreak of World War II, he lived in the USA for several months and on his return to France, he worked with the film director Jean Renoir. He also traveled in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. When the war ended, Cartier-Bresson embarked on more distant journeys. A year after, he founded the Magnum agency, together with Robert Capa, David Seymour (Chim), William Vandivert and George Rodger. Cartier-Bresson left the agency in 1966 for the Far East, where he lived for the next three years. He photographed Gandhi, the political tranformation of China and the independence of Indochina (which became Vietnam) in 1954. By spending much time in each country, Cartier-Bresson must have hoped to capture something of the country’s essence. In his introduction to «The Europeans,» Cartier-Bresson noted that unless one becomes part of a community or gets a job in the country he is visiting, it is impossible to express a situation. The moving effect of Cartier-Bresson’s images is proof of how this legendary photographer could capture the world in all its diversity and beauty, and of how he could blend the political and social with the aesthetic to speak a universal language through his art. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s «The Europeans» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koubari Street, Kolonaki, tel 210.367.1000) to August 31.

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