April 9, 2010 / 12:10 PM / 9 years ago

Cartier-Bresson photo exhibit chronicles 20th century

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A sprawling new exhibition of works by renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson documents life around the globe in the 20th century.

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

“Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” which opens at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Sunday, is the first retrospective of his work since he died in 2004 at age 95.

The exhibit includes about 300 photographs, the majority on loan from the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, and several of his documentary films. There are also lectures and discussions about his work.

“Photography (for Cartier-Bresson) was not about making pretty pictures, it was about discovering the world around him,” Peter Galassi, MoMA’s chief photography curator, said at a preview of the exhibit.

“He was much less interested in pictures than in his next destination and the people he would find there,” he added.

At least one-fifth of the photographs in the exhibit were previously unknown to the public, according to the museum. The French artist’s work from the United States is among his least known and photographs from the 1960s is of particular interest.

The exhibit begins with several monumental maps, emblazoned on the museum’s walls, which delineate Cartier-Bresson’s worldwide travels, the relevant dates and the resulting work.

Virtually all of the photographs have human subjects. The works range from everyday images of European laborers or housewives to defining cultural and political events such as Gandhi’s funeral, or China’s Communist revolution.


MoMA’s Director Glenn Lowry said the breadth of material encompasses “virtually the sweep of the 20th century.”

Galassi divided the exhibit into 13 sections. It starts with early work dating to the late 1920s and then explores the Magnum Photo Agency co-founder’s work in photojournalism, focusing on post-war changes fomenting in Asia and the end of the colonial system.

The old worlds of the East, West and France give way to the “new worlds” of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), with a critical lens trained on U.S. vulgarity, greed and racism.

Two photo essays present a remarkable study in contrast. The photographer spent four months documenting the Chinese Revolution in 1958, focusing on Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” forced industrialization program.

Two years later he was hired to illustrate Bankers Trust’s annual report, which along with his Chinese work makes a jarring set of social documentary bookends.

More than 30 portraits of 20th-century icons are featured near the show’s end. Artists Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti, thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Carl Jung, aging style icon Coco Chanel and author Truman Capote all served as willing subjects.

But Galassi noted that Cartier-Bresson was really most interested in day-to-day life, characterizing his work as a sort of “world diary of everyday, ordinary people.”

The Cartier-Bresson retrospective runs until June 28. It will travel to Chicago in July, followed by San Francisco in October and Atlanta in February 2011.

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