Cartier-Bresson photographs show debt to painting

Tue Sep 23, 2008 2:54pm EDT
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By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - Irving Penn once branded Henri Cartier-Bresson a "thief" after the famed photographer surreptitiously snapped Penn's portrait relaxing with his brother Arthur, then innocently talked on for 20 minutes.

"He is like a thief, but he's not injuring anyone," Art Institute of Chicago curator David Travis recalled telling Penn, a celebrated portrait photographer who liked the candid image.

The Art Institute is among several institutions exhibiting photographs by Cartier-Bresson, one of the world's most famous photographers during the centenary of his birth in 1908. He died in 2004, age 95, having largely given up photography decades earlier. The exhibition will run until January 4.

A pioneer of "street photography," Cartier-Bresson took pains to remain invisible to his subjects while capturing the "decisive moment," Travis explained.

He wore an old trench coat, painted over shiny surfaces on his camera, and sometimes took "grab shots" without raising camera to eye.

Travis said he felt a bit like a thief himself selecting from among dozens of paintings by Mondrian, Dali, and de Chirico from the institute's collection to hang alongside photographs by Cartier-Bresson and contemporaries Andre Kertesz, Brassai and others. Much of the museum's collection is in storage or on loan while it builds a new wing and refurbishes galleries.

Cartier-Bresson was borrowing in more ways than one, said Travis, who spent many dinners with the at-times irascible Frenchman. The curator was amazed how many modern paintings and drawings mirrored Cartier-Bresson's work -- and no wonder since he had traded in his easel and brushes for a camera.

"Sometimes it's just fortuitous (to find the parallels). But I kept finding them over and over again. I thought good heavens, there's some kind of mind-set, or looking out for similar kinds of things for your composition," Travis said.   Continued...

<p>Henri Cartier-Bresson is pictured in this file picture from September 1989. REUTERS/Charles Platiau</p>