Cartier-Bresson exhibit tells stories in decisive moments

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said a good photograph captures the “decisive moment,” but the comment is often misunderstood.

Cartier-Bresson, who traveled the globe shooting many of the 20th century’s major events, was less interested in capturing an incident than in using photographs to convey its significance, curators of a new retrospective of his work said.

When Cartier-Bresson documented refugees coming to the United States after World War Two, he focused his camera not on their arrivals, but on a mother and son embracing as they reunited. His photos of Gandhi’s funeral in 1948 show a nation’s sorrow at losing the leader as mourners crowd in front of his funeral pyre and cling to a train carrying the leader’s ashes.

“The ‘decisive moment’ is kind of misleading,” said Matthew Witkovsky, a curator of “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“You will not find a single picture in there that’s, like, someone about to get their head blown off. He is not the taker of a single image like that,” Witkovsky said.

“The Modern Century,” which features nearly 300 photographs, will be displayed at the Art Institute in Chicago until October 3. It is the first retrospective of the photographer’s work since his death in 2004.

Cartier-Bresson, who was born in France in 1908 and trained as a painter, began traveling at age 22 with his trusty Leica camera. His first photos, featured in the exhibition’s first gallery, have a distinctly surrealist feel in keeping with his association with Andre Breton and the Parisian surrealists.

After World War Two, Cartier-Bresson began to tell stories with his images, and created an outlet for a new type of photojournalism with the photography collective, Magnum Photos. Magnum linked photographers with magazines such as Life and ParisMatch and helped them retain control over their work.

Cartier-Bresson documented China’s Communist revolution and took portraits of artists including Henri Matisse, George Balanchine and Truman Capote.

He was fascinated by ordinary life too, photographing scenes such as election day in Greenfield, Indiana, and women lounging outside a shop in Saint-Tropez, France.

Cartier-Bresson was intent on capturing the significance of events, Witkovsky said, and he rarely shot one subject when he could juxtapose two or three within the frame.

A photo of a street musician in Los Remedios, Mexico, also depicts restless children in front of an oversized Corona beer ad on the side of a building, juxtaposing old-world traditions and a more modern world.

Another image emphasizes the crowded modernity of post-war Japan, showing young men at what appears to be a bicycle rack in front of cluttered billboard advertisements of partially dressed women.

“He could really see a lot going on within the frame,” Witkovsky said.

Cartier-Bresson used those juxtapositions to alter the way viewers saw the stories behind the photos, Witkovsky said.

“He found the marvelous in the everyday, and he made the everyday unsettling.”

Reporting by Emily Stephenson