September 23, 2008 / 3:40 PM / 10 years ago

Cartier-Bresson photographs show debt to painting

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.

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

“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.

Cartier-Bresson’s eye was trained by studying painting and composition under artist Andre Lhote and his mind-set formed amid the photographers, artists and poets hanging around Parisian cafes. Many were influenced by the Surrealists’ belief in tapping the subconscious.

“Now that we’ve seen his journals ... there’s lots to learn,” Travis said. “Cartier-Bresson was desperate to become a painter when he was in his late teens and early 20s.”

“The geometry and the composition he learned from painting went right into photography,” once Cartier-Bresson acquired his beloved Leica 35-millimeter camera, Travis said.


On one of his visits with Cartier-Bresson Travis feared an essay he had written might have angered him. But he was relieved when told he had captured the master’s thinking.

“He said, ‘My early career was about geometry and good clean fun,’” Travis said.

Cartier-Bresson’s early work was typified by the iconic photograph in the show of a bicyclist speeding past a spiraling staircase and its thin railing. The “decisive moment” often was a figure’s entry into a carefully chosen setting, Travis said.

“(Cartier-Bresson believed) the camera would help you, but you had to be in tune with it, and you had to have these reflexes, you had to be cat-like, and you had to be quick, and you can’t just stand around flat-footed and dopey and wait for things to come to you. They’re not going to come to you,” Travis said.

“He said, ‘There is a decisive moment. There is a time when this picture will complete itself and you need the reflexes to see it.’ ... He had a very tender heart about it. So you don’t find him satirizing people or making fun of them. They’re not schmaltzy, they’re not sentimental,” he said.

The curator sought to illustrate photography’s parallels to the modern impulses that were erupting in painting.

Travis hung one of Lhote’s sketches of women in a tangle of limbs near photographs taken by his former pupil of sleeping Mexican women and a gaggle of Spanish men whose arms form similar diagonals.

Another Lhote drawing shows a distracted young woman with her hand to her cheek — and the Cartier-Bresson photograph shows a spent middle-aged woman with hand to chin set amid shapes from other working women.

A Piet Mondrian “diamond” painting, where the canvas is at a diagonal, sets off several photos featuring ropes at a diagonal. A Salvador Dali landscape with a single figure is mirrored in a Cartier-Bresson photograph of a young boy set amid the planar walls of a fort.

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