New York

Henri Cartier-Bresson

IBM Gallery

The photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, all of them taken in the last three years, were good, but their weakness is striking if they are compared with the work of the thirties that first brought him to public notice. Still more disturbing is to have to wonder how good this artist was in those days: the unfortunate obviousness of the vision on which these latest photos depend gives rise to suspicion that what is different is only the obviousness, not the devices that are employed. In these new photos the design is nearly always of the eccentric Degas type, with some prominent elements cut off at the edge of the photo; nature is generally blurred, always moody and “romantic”; the motif is a moment of whimsey and quaintness which is meant to be an index of “humanity“—usually it depends on a contrast between the figure and the background, the idea being that human qualities stubbornly persist in spite of everything . . . So we have the formally-dressed Etonian working in the school shop, the machine-shop worker stretched out on his bench for a lunchtime nap, an assistant manager of a New York bank sitting behind his desk with an adding machine and a safe beside him, and behind him a fresco called The Romance of Manhattan; a sick boy surrounded by hospital equipment in the vast Empire salon of a Paris apartment—casual moments, yes, but not moments of any particular depth. It is odd but true that these photos are at their best when nothing is happening, as with the African mother holding her infant.

The superiority of these static motifs might be a clue to what has happened. Certainly Cartier-Bresson’s early work is by now part of the history of photo-journalism and perhaps, being unable to see it as anything but that, he is casting about for ways to avoid its characteristics: But one of the remarkable things about his early photos was the way in which they fused elements that were marketable or not, struck a responsive chord because they went very deep; and perhaps it is that in giving up the former he has tended to give up the latter, too. At any rate, the attitudes his photos embody now are trite: the romantic pastoralism, the geometric machinery, humanism as a mode of the picturesque. But I know that for a photographer it must be even harder than for a painter to render significant actions unless his subjects themselves feel them as significant; and, so as not to end on a complaint, the present photos are at least better than the Moscow work—more abstract, incidentally, although not as abstract as Cartier-Bresson was in the thirties.

Jerrold Lanes