The Modern Century: Henri Cartier-Bresson Photographs at the MoMA

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For so many reasons, on so many levels, the huge new Henri Cartier-Bresson photography show at the Museum of Modern Art is a stunner. In more than 300 photographs spanning his entire 50+-year career, from the early 1930s into the 1980s, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century delivers one indelible, sometimes challenging, often iconic, always brilliantly composed image after another, of a world and a life long since gone. It's not nostalgia that we felt walking through here–who would want to relive the horrors of so much of those years?–but for us there was a definite sadness drifting through the exhibition. Henry Cartier-Bresson's photographic work is so evocative, and is so alive, that we couldn't help feel the loss of all these places, all these people. 

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Cartier-Bresson was an exhaustive traveler–a point slammed home by the massive "he was here" world maps in the exhibition's entranceway–covering vast tracts of five continents in order to capture, hundreds of thousands of times, what he called "the decisive moment." And so we see the prostitutes of Mexico City of the 1930s, squeezing through impossibly tiny holes in their doorways in order to lure their customers inside. And a Henry Cartier-Bresson photograph of a child speeding by on his bike, in Hyeres, France, before the Great Depression, before the War. 

 

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And the panicked residents of Shanghai, 1948, frantic to retrieve their savings in gold before Mao's Communist Army arrives. And Gandhi's funeral that same year. And bullfighters in Spain, 1952. And a local Nixon campaign office, Indiana, 1960. And the empty markets and desolate heart of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Henry Cartier-Bresson was famous for leaving his photographs uncropped, and he had no interest in the developing his of shots. What we see, is what he saw. Remarkable stuff.  

 

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The MoMA's Henry Cartier-Bresson photography exhibition also features a number of his portraits. Full of charm and energy, Cartier-Bresson convinced many of the century's greats to sit for him, from Nehru to Jacqueline Kennedy, Henri Matisse to Alberto Giacometti, William Faulkner to Truman Capote, Christian Dior to Coco Chanel. In the 1960s several big, buttoned-up American corporations commissioned Cartier-Bresson to shoot their annual reports–most notably, Banker's Trust–and gave the photographer unprecedented access to their offices. The results are so pro-worker, anti-boss, it's a wonder the company bigwigs didn't catch on. You'll recognize some, or even most, of the Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs in the exhibition, but if nothing else it affords an excellent excuse to really look at this work with fresh eyes. This is essential viewing. All of it. 

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Henri Cartier-Bresson Photographs at the MoMA Details

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century will be on exhibition through June 28. The Museum of Modern Art is located on 53rd Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, and open Monday, Wednesday Thursday, Staurday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and on Friday until 8:00 p.m., when admission is free after 4:00 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. For more information, please the MoMA's website.    

 

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