In one of the many Henri Cartier-Bresson quotes scattered about the exhibition “The Compass in the Eye” that we visited this weekend in Vienna, the legendary French photographer points out that he couldn’t even begin to describe himself as a globetrotter, as he always wanted to stay put in all the places he visited.
Despite the fact that travelling was an integral part of his life, and as a result his opus, Cartier-Bresson always emphasized that he’s not just a mere traveler, rather an attentive spectator of events he stumbles upon during his travels.
This painstaking and delicate way of looking at the world around him resulted in a flawless sense for shooting, capturing a moment in time, stopping life forever, all of which subsequently resulted in an incredible opus, by far the most impressive within an eminent group of 20th century photographers, that speaks in an unbelievably honest and, at the same time, a rough realistic way about the recent history of humankind through near perfect poetic photography.
The renowned French artist’s major exhibition held at the Vienna Kunsthaus (Kunst Haus Wien) closed this very weekend. Some two hundred black and white photos accompanied by various additional contents convey the author’s impressions from his travels throughout three entirely different parts of the world which are highly important to recent history – the USA, India and the Soviet Union.
Cartier-Bresson’s luminous notations were transformed through a clever set-up into an artful narration of certain significant historical time periods and important events in the aforementioned countries. Upon viewing his photos, the viewer can notice a subtle and unassuming, yet at the same time emphatic and memorable portrayal of the ambience, spirit and contrasts; garbage and fur coats of pre and post-war America, a somewhat humorous and rapturous socialist blossoming of post-war Moscow and the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death as well as the brutally blunt overturns and social disproportion in Mumbai and India, historically marked by the assassination on Ghandi.
Many people, Bresson included, will say that in many of the displayed, i.e., captured shots it seems as if both Lady Luck and fate were on his side, as he always seemed to be in the right place (i.e. countries) at the right time (i.e. periods), documenting some of the most important moments in time, often as the only photographer there, whose recordings would subsequently tell the world about the events that took place.
Precisely these moments to remember, or scenarios that compelled them, are the lead actors in these brilliantly told stories spanning across several decades of the 20th century.
Location-wise, New York was the most important place in this Frenchman’s photographic career. Not only was his talent first recognized there, followed by exhibition successes, professional advancements and the establishment of the Magnum – the most significant moment for both past and future documentary photography – but above all, New York served as an inexhaustible source of inspiration to Cartier-Bresson.
It was precisely on the streets of the Big Apple that this French photographer captured some of his most famous photos, portraying one thing, conveying another, all the while evoking emotions; at the same time problematizing America as it once was. Its political system, depression era, as well as various social moments and circumstances of that time; fragments of racism, individuals responsible for its cultural advancement, wealth and poverty, smiles and tears, are all motifs portrayed in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs.
Bresson’s portrayal on over a hundred photos of the then-USA didn’t stop at the Big Apple, Cartier-Bresson clicked his Leica throughout the whole of America on his travels in search of that special moment, i.e. a bunch of moments, following some of his culturally equally important contemporaries, Truman Capote or John Malcolm Brinnin.
It’s redundant to waste words on the technical and composition details of the photos themselves. Cartier-Bresson was a master of framing, his compositions, regardless of what they’re documenting, whether it’s street happenings, spiffed-up directed subjects or a seemingly simple spontaneous motif, are all immaculately balanced, always near-perfectly framed. Bearing witness to his obsession with frames and framing, Cartier-Bresson specifically banned his photos from being cropped, resized or collaged in the slightest. He remained adamant on this matter even when his work started appearing in the most important US dailies and weeklies.
All published photos had to be displayed in their original shape and size, Bresson often insisted they be set in a black negative frame as a guarantee of absolutely precise framing. Bresson wouldn’t allow any type of retouching as he never believed in touching-up photos. All of the aforementioned information speaks volumes in terms of the perfect eye and quick mind which, as the author himself states, combined with the heart, are the major culprits responsible for the high quality and timelessness of his works. Bresson’s American story at the Vienna exhibition closes with a somewhat unfamiliar segment of the author’s opus, namely, two documentary films less known to the general public.
In the late 1940s alongside the decolonization of many Asian countries, Bresson fairly often stayed in that part of world, including a stay in the then newly independent India. The underlying reason probably had something to do with the nationality of his then-spouse, Indonesian dancer Ratna Mohini, thus India became the usual residence of the Cartier-Bresson spouses.
Historically maybe the most impressive moment was when Henri Cartier-Bresson had a private meeting with Mahatma Ghandi on January 30th 1948, (what later proved to be a fateful day for both the history of India and that of humankind in general). Shortly after their first conversation Ghandi was assassinated, and the rest is history. Finding himself at this crucial place in time Cartier-Bresson didn’t hesitate, but grabbed his camera and documented the moments that would later become the very photos distributed worldwide.
Precisely this series of photos, showing Ghandi’s house, his associates and family just after his death, along with the subsequent days, the cremation attended by hordes of followers and fans, in stark contrast to America’s real world, its urban esthetic making it the most developed part of the world. In addition to a fanatic following, scenes often incomprehensible to the West, the Indian photo-series displays powerlessness, the rough yet realistic social stratification, poverty juxtaposed to wealth at the same time depicting the sheer simplicity of the Asian culture as opposed to the modern world.
The Indian motifs evoke a feeling of reverence in the viewer, in terms of the perfect framing from American shows, they seem as exclusively documentary photos, fast and slightly scared. This is a legitimately different perspective of the author himself, this emphasized etiquette of such a special scenario with dignity. The death of a man whose life and works were of such significance deserves no less.
The monochromatic instance of Bresson’s expression really comes out in his India photographs, as the very essence of Indian culture is taken away by his technical decision to develop the photos in black-and-white. However, black-and-white photos have always been Cartier-Bresson’s signature; his artistic expression was only ever in black and white, he never photographed in color.
Regardless of his media devoid of color, in the last series presented at the exhibition, photographs created from the mid-1950s onwards in the Soviet Union, Bresson equally succeeds in capturing the liveliness, a completely different form of fanatical adulation and an almost young-Pioneeresque blind commitment to the authorities. Although the exhibition’s introduction explains how his photographing in the former Soviet Union was under constant supervision, the author’s neither fear nor tentativeness at choosing any given moment to capture do not come through as such. Cartier-Bresson is yet again direct and straightforward, flawlessly framing, with his subjects gazing directly into the camera and laughing, while he managed to capture the spirit of the streets of Russia, Uzbekistan and Georgia and convey all its complexities to the world at large in a direct, nonjudgmental way with great wit to boot. In this instance, Bresson is, yet again, the first photo-delegate of the world, inside a hermetically sealed Russia, the first ever Western photographer to gain entrance into the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death.
His Russian youth don’t look oppressed, the system seems as if it functions, smiles are plastered on everyone’s faces, soldiers stand to attention, and the whole strictness of the world power seemed to be demystified all of a sudden.
Looking at Cartier-Bresson’s photos, from completely different parts of the world, an incredible variety of political circumstances, social systems, religions, settled customs and standardized mentalities, one can conclude that this man succeeded in conveying any and all information into the art of conveying information, that is, into art itself.
Over two hundred displayed photos, in all their strength of communicating a message, conveying emotion and fostering the construction of historical moments from the spectator’s POV compete equally with each other, there is no domination; they’re all linked together by an incredible force, unequivocal talent and the contagious energy of a photograph’s innate candidness.
All that a person can say after visiting such an exhibition is “my absolute respect” and express sorrow at the fact that this exhibition entitled “The Compass in the Eye: America-India-Soviet Union” ended this Sunday so you’ll have to find Cartier-Bresson’s flawless “compass in the eye” in some other European museum or in the wasteland that is the Internet.
photos; © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos