New York

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Equitable Center

This show of more than 100 works by Henri Cartier-Bresson comes as something of a revelation to those who associate the artist with images of life overseas. The photographer’s inimitable style has been applied here to territory more readily associated with American photographers from Walker Evans to Gary Winogrand, particularly in the road trip Cartier-Bresson took from New York to Los Angeles and back in 1947. The show may tell us less about America, however, than it does about Cartier-Bresson: the evolution of his light-handed style, and his consistent preoccupation with humanist themes.

With three periods of work (1935, 1946–47, and the 1950s) represented unequally in the number of images shown, this survey of Cartier-Bresson seemed a bit uneven. The photographer came to New York in 1935 to exhibit his work at the Julien Levy Gallery, staying on for a year to study film with Paul Strand. The three images from that year (only four years after he took up photography) are matter-of-fact in their depiction of human despair amid economic depression but lack the spark of his later work. These images, while rare for their early date and American origin, seem like journeyman’s work compared with what was to follow.

The fifty or so images from 1946–47 better represent Cartier-Bresson’s work. While a series of celebrity photographs suggest commercial assignments, the images of more everyday subjects possess real character. The tone is decidedly cosmopolitan if, curiously enough, somewhat foreign. Individuals strike stereotypically “Gallic” poses and gestures; the bony limbs and haggard features of the gesticulating crone wearing the Stars and Stripes in Fourth of July, Cape Cod, 1947, recalls the expressive quality of a character in a Daumier lithograph. There are occasional lapses in comprehension as well: Cartier-Bresson seems in search of a European bourgeois street culture that doesn’t exist in the States; and he even names a 1947 image of the New York State Supreme Court at Foley Square, Quartier de Wall Street (Wall Street is a quarter mile away).

Even so, the photographs from 1947 have the strongest sense of gritty urban atmosphere. In these and later works, Cartier-Bresson’s whimsical eye reveals itself. In William Faulkner, Oxford, Mississippi, 1947, the novelist’s stretching terrier seems to cast light on something ineffable in the character of Faulkner himself. Cartier-Bresson has hit his stride, as becomes obvious especially in the works from the ’50s. These later images are almost uniformly masterful. The image of office life (the glance, the leg, the invisible doorway, and the glass wall) stands out as a masterpiece of split-second irony.

If the photographer’s treatment of the downtrodden seems at times just short of mawkish (a bum, in silhouette, stares down at an inquiring alleycat), his shots are never without compassion. The images of southern blacks from the ’40s remain the ones with the greatest emotional impact. Cartier-Bresson does not glamorize subjects from other races, backgrounds, or cultures (as does Roy DeCarava in his portraits of Harlem denizens), or picture them as outer expressions of an inner bleakness (Robert Frank) or as individuals raised to heroism by the epically difficult situations in which they find themselves (Strand, Evans, et al.). He simply takes them as they are. It’s the lack of judgment, or of overt intention, that gives these quiet images their genius: that, and lightning-fast timing. At a time when it seems few narrative images are being created that are not jammed with violence or sarcasm, Cartier-Bresson’s deeply humanistic work, appreciative, intuitive, brilliantly quick and utterly sincere, offers a remonstrance by example.

Justin Spring