Henri Cartier-Bresson at SFMOMA

Today we review the major retrospective of photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson at the San Francisco Museum of Modern of Art (SFMOMA). It will be closing in two weeks on January 30.

The exhibition focuses primarily on the period between 1932 and 1973, a rather dramatic sweep of the middle of the 20th century. It was interesting to see the world change in his images, from scenes that were already nostalgic in the 1930s to the beginnings of a familiar world in the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, the exhibition can be seen in two ways, as an artistic study of a master photographer or as a historical document of a photojournalist. The arrangement of the exhibition, into several chronological and geographical periods, followed by sections on beauty, portraiture and confrontation with the modern world, emphasize these two aspects of his work.

In some ways, the latter speaks more strongly to me, even though it is not the aspect most emphasized by the curators or most reviews. For example, among his many images depicting scenes from France is this one stark image with a spiral staircase and a blur of bicyclist in the background. One can focus on the shapes and textures and the motion.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyères, France, 1932; gelatin silver print; 7 11/16 x 11 7/16 in. (19.6 x 29.1 cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York; ©2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.]

In another depicting an alleyway Paris, the human element is left out altogether in favor of vegetation and architectural elements. I found myself quite captivated by an image of a highway in New York City in 1947, that I am pretty sure was the Henry Hudson Parkway. He presents several abstracted images of the human body as object of beauty, which seem to have more in common with architectural images and quite separate from his portraiture or more documentary photos.

But it is the latter that makes up the majority of the exhibition, with several segments featuring his early travels as a photographer and then his experiences as a photojournalist. He often made multiple trips to the same places and captured the changes. For example, he had been Shanghai in 1948 during the war the led to establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, and took this photograph of a surging crowd.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shanghai, China, 1948, printed 1971; gelatin silver print; 13 x 19 1/2 in. (33 x 49.5 cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel; © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.]

He later returned to China in 1958 on assignment to document scenes from the Great Leap Forward. His photographs from this series depict worker rituals and banners with Communist slogans. My favorite was translated as “Work like the devil to change the face of China in most of the regions.” I like that the Chinese leaders took the time to be realistic by suggesting only most of the regions.

One series where the documentary crossed over into art photography for me was his 1960s depiction of employees at Banker’s Trust in New York. The photographs are very crisp and high contrast, they radiate a sense of modernism. One can also get a sense of wry humor in the faces of some of the workers. Perhaps I am just channeling Mad Men through the images. It’s also an interesting contrast to some of his other photographs from the United States, which through his lens seems a foreign country just as China would be. This scene outside a polling place in Indiana certainly seems very remote:

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Greenfield, Indiana, 1960; gelatin silver print; 10 7/16 x 15 3/8 in. (26.5 x 39.1cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer ; ©2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.]

Another photograph depicting the Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, is downright creepy.

There is a tension between old and new that seems to be run through his work. He seems most fond of scenes of traditional life at a slower pace, whether in his native France or elsewhere. But he doesn’t shy away from modern scenes and modern notions of beauty, as described and the final section of the exhibition does focus on the changing landscape of Europe and Asia, with industrial and urban scenes that contrast sharply with the slower-pace traditional settings in some of his more well-known images. In addition to images from factories, there was a photograph of a billboard in Tokyo, for example, that were taken decades before my visit but seem at once familiar representations of the modern world.

One that seems to transcend the different aspects of his work and career is the image of a woman peering out a door in Calle Cuahametoczin, Mexico City. Indeed, this photograph is the title image for the exhibition.

Cartier-Bresson’s long career and fame also gave him access to make more formal portraits of noted figures from the middle of the 20th Century.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Paris, 1945; gelatin silver print; 13 9/16 x 9 1/8 in. (34.4 x 23.2 cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer; © 2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.]

The portrait of Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (Irène Joliot-Curie is the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie) is very serious and composed. On one hand, one sees the expressions of a great dynasty of scientists, but at the same time, their difficult story during World War II – Cartier-Bresson had his own dark experience as a prisoner during the war. Each of his portraits were unique – the 1965 photograph Jean-Marie Le Clezio with his wife has the modern streamlined look of the time that I particularly like from French films of the era. The warm and joyous portrait of artist Saul Steinberg with his cat was probably my favorite in this series.

The exhibition will remain at SFMOMA through January 30. It will then travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 16, to May 15, 2011).