Henri Cartier-Bresson’s early images capture life on the run, with anonymous people doing ordinary things, depicted in a beautiful way.
In “Hyeres, France” (1932), for example, a spiral staircase with a black handrail leads down to a curved cobblestone street where a bicyclist in silhouette races by in a blur.
Over the years, the visual poet turned into a skeptical photojournalist.
A handsome retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art traces four decades of the life of this great photographer, who was born into a wealthy French family in 1908 and died in 2004.
Influenced by the Surrealists, he began to pursue photography seriously in the early 1930s, using a small Leica 35-millimeter camera, which made it possible to shoot inconspicuously. He also became involved in leftist politics, worked as an assistant to film director Jean Renoir and joined the army.
Captured by the Germans in 1940, he was held as a prisoner of war for almost three years before escaping.
His work afterward was more hard-nosed, more socially engaged, more reportorial. In 1947 he co-founded the Magnum Agency with Robert Capa and others. By the 1950s he was arguably the greatest “street” photographer of the time, often on assignment for Life magazine, and led the way for Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and others.
After the war, Cartier-Bresson traveled almost continuously, to India and China, Spain and Italy, Russia and America.
In 1945 he captured the furious denunciation of a Nazi informer by a woman in Dessau, Germany. He depicted the panic of the Communist takeover of China in a 1948 image of Shanghai bank depositors jostling each other as they wait in line to withdraw their savings. His 1954 picture of a workers’ dance in Moscow shows not just the proletarian unstylishness of the women in baggy pants but also their optimism and grit.
Along the way he produced a slew of memorable portraits: a young Truman Capote lounging in a white T-shirt; George Balanchine in loafers, demonstrating how a dancer should point his toe; Robert Capa, cigarette in mouth, counting his winnings at the Longchamp racetrack in Paris.
Cartier-Bresson’s attitude toward the U.S. was ambivalent at best. A view of McCann-Erickson’s flashy New York advertising office seems to recognize America as the land of the new. He also saw it as the land of the bizarre.
In a 1960 image from Greenville, Indiana, two women dressed in beaded Indian-squaw costumes emerge from a storefront Republican campaign office, flanked by window-size photos of Richard Nixon and his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. The picture is both deadpan and strange, as if the master has picked up a trick from the younger Friedlander or Winogrand.
Speaking of strange, the museum has mounted another ambitious photography exhibition, “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870.”
The show looks at the appeal of, and tries to find connections between, photographs as unrelated as Civil War battle scenes, paparazzi shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton making out on a yacht, the famous image of a busboy kneeling over Robert F. Kennedy moments after he was shot in Los Angeles, military air-reconnaissance photos, and arty images that seem to celebrate the mundane and pointless.
The show could have been called “200 Weird and Creepy Photos in Search of a Concept.” Yet the power of the images wins out over the thematic confusion.
“Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” runs through Jan. 30 and “Exposed” through April 17 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. Information: http://www.sfmoma.org; +1-415-357-4000. “Henri Cartier- Bresson” opens Feb. 19 at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and “Exposed” opens May 21 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
(Stephen West is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.