Henri Cartier-Bresson is most famous for turning the phrase “the decisive moment” into a description of his spontaneous street photography style. Borrowed from Cardinal de Retz, a 17th-century French clergyman and essayist who wrote that “there is nothing in the world that does not have a decisive moment,” the words struck a chord with Cartier-Bresson when he was searching for an English title for his 1952 monograph. (The French title, Images à la sauvette or, roughly, “Images on the sly,” was deemed to hold unsavory connotations for an American audience.)
The phrase stuck — to the point where viewing Cartier-Bresson’s every image under its terms has become somewhat of a cliché. There’s more than the decisive moment, cautioned Andréa Holzherr, exhibitions manager with Magnum Photos in Paris, during a recent conversation — an uncanny sense of compositional geometry, for example, likely informed by Cartier-Bresson’s early studies with late Cubist painter André Lhote.
The phrase also seems a slightly ironic legacy for a life that burst at the seams with decisive moments — not just one — from buying his first Leica camera (the kind Cartier-Bresson would use throughout his career) while haunting café gatherings of Surrealist artists in the early 1930s to accidentally witnessing the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination nearly 20 years later.
Through Jan. 13, a retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’s photography at the Tampa Museum of Art offers a dazzling view of those moments: both the real-life ones that occasioned Cartier-Bresson’s most gripping pictures and the moments constructed in frame, which often depict nothing more momentous than everyday life, but everyday life with a twist, as Holzherr puts it. Clocking in at more than 265 photographs, the exhibition requires an afternoon. (If you took an entire minute to look at each photograph, you’d spend nearly five hours.) If you’re like me, you’ll want to expend a chunk of that time ogling the personal photos and newspapers in which Cartier-Bresson’s images were first published — tangible traces of the man and the historical moment of his work — that accompany gallery upon gallery of framed black-and-white prints.
The Man, the Image & the World: Henri Cartier-Bresson, a Retrospective was the last look back at the artist’s work to be assembled before his death in 2004; Cartier-Bresson selected the images himself and even approved the quality of each print. TMA marks the only U.S. stop for the show, which was co-organized by the Paris-based Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and Magnum Photos and has traveled to Germany, Australia and South Korea.
The fundamental turning point upon which the exhibition, and Cartier-Bresson’s life, rests is his decision in the late 1920s to take up photography. The son of a prominent family of French industry — they manufactured Cartier-Bresson threads — he aspired to be a fine artist before gravitating to photography under the influence of American friends who practiced as amateurs. A stint abroad with the French military in the Ivory Coast, during which he pursued photography as a hobby, further cemented his commitment. By the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson was trying his hand at making photographs for a living as a journalist for communist newspapers and magazines. (His well-to-do family didn’t disown him for his artistic inclinations or his politics nor did they support him, so earning money was a concern.) One of his early assignments was to photograph the coronation of King George VI of England, from which Cartier-Bresson returned with more peculiar, quotidian scenes of average Londoners than images of the royals.
“He was interested in the human being,” Holzherr says. “He wasn’t interested in history with a big ‘H’.”
Exploring the human being often meant finding a moment when one person’s action reveals the tender, and often faintly funny, strangeness of everyday life. A 1933 photograph of a boy in Valencia, Spain, for example, shows the child standing against a dilapidated wall looking upward with an expression of ecstasy on his small face. At the time, Holzherr explains, the boy was waiting for a ball (outside the frame) to drop. In the common scene, however, Cartier-Bresson found an image that affirmed his artistic commitments.
“When you look at his pictures, often what you see is a geometrical frame that is broken by a figure moving in or going out,” Holzherr explains. “He took what interested him and left out the other parts.”
During WWII, Cartier-Bresson languished in a German prisoner-of-war camp, trying unsuccessfully to escape twice before breaking free on his third attempt. Learning that a posthumous exhibition of his photography was being planned at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he sent a letter to Beaumont Newhall, the photography curator there, announcing that he was not dead and would like very much to have a show. (The exhibition opened in 1946.) The following year, Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos along with photographers Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger. The collaborative agency was the first to allow photographers to maintain the copyright to their photos while brokering the sale of their images to publishers.
Leaving business to Magnum, Cartier-Bresson returned to traveling, especially to Asia, the birthplace of his first wife, a Javanese dancer. By chance he alighted in India just before Gandhi’s assassination, documenting the immediate aftermath of the event — images that made the well-known photographer truly famous. Past political affiliations helped him gain access to communist China and Russia, where he snapped images of everyday life rarely seen (then) by Westerners.
“He compared himself to a hunter,” Holzherr says. In many ways, what he did is simply looking, but “it’s looking with a twist.”