Tuesday, April 27, 2010

EXHIBIT REVIEW: Henri Cartier-Bresson at MoMA

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Imagine, if you will, the following...

You stand on a busy city street on a bright day around lunchtime. The light is strong... so bright that whites are blinding and shadows are hard and unforgiving. You hold in your hands a fully manual camera: No autofocus... No automatic modes to choose the correct aperture or shutter speed, in fact there's not even a light meter to give you a recommendation! You've chosen your film for the day (that's right... "film") - so you do not have the luxury of switching from ISO 50 to ISO 100 to ISO 3200 and back to ISO 50 with each photo you take. You don't have auto-bracketing. You don't have anything. It's all up to YOU. It's up to YOUR eye... it's up to YOUR know-how.

Suddenly, it happens... "the decisive moment". Something happens in the crowd of people around you. Perhaps a child holding a balloon suddenly lost her grip of the string... and the balloon rises above the head of the crowd, as the child reaches up - the rest of the crowd oblivious. You have just a split-second to raise the camera to your eye, choose a shutter speed and aperture, focus and release the shutter. One mistake... one incorrect setting, and the photo is lost forever. The question is: Can YOU get the shot?

In all honesty, most photographers couldn't. Not anymore. We've become too reliant on auto focus... light meters... automatic shooting modes... auto-bracketing photo bursts... and, if all else fails (and sometimes even if it doesn't), the ability to make adjustments in Photoshop later on.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, on the other hand, could get the shot. He had the true photographers eye. In a fraction of a second he could raise his Leica... focus... and snap, with confidence. With just a quick glance of the light around him, his experience told him what the proper shutter-speed and aperture combo needed to be for a proper exposure. No light meter needed.

Time and time again his uncanny ability to "get the shot" captured incredible moments of day-to-day life that would have gone unnoticed otherwise. Moments that would have been "lost" if it weren't for his ability. Friends of Cartier-Bresson have recounted instances of walking with him... never even noticing him taking a photo - only to have him come back a day or two later with images of scenes that had occurred during their walk together... scenes the friends had never even noticed.

Cartier-Bresson truly was a master... and this despite the fact that he never considered himself to be a photographer (in fact, he HATED developing film and making enlargements - and left that up to "more qualified people") and preferred painting and sketching to photography. Yet the simple truth is that he was a master... one of the most important photographers of the 20th century... and the father of my personal favorite photographic genre, "street photography". These simple facts alone make the exhibit - "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City a "must see" for any photographer or photography enthusiast.

The exhibit - which runs through June 28th - is the first major Cartier-Bresson retrospective in the United States in almost 30 years. It spans his entire career, bringing together close to 300 photographs... as well as periodicals and books featuring Cartier-Bresson's work.

I attended a Members Preview of the exhibit a week before it opened to the public, and was in awe the entire time! The photos are presented beautifully... and are easy to view and "absorb". The galleries begin with some of Cartier-Bresson's earliest pieces... as well as examples of how differently his photos appear depending on who the printer was and/or when the print was made. A famous image from Spain, taken in 1933, is used to show the stark difference between an early printing and a later printing from the very same negative.

Moving on, the galleries begin to take you on a tour with Cartier-Bresson... as he travelled the world capturing moments as a photographer for Magnum Photos (the famous photographic group he created alongside Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour). Key locations include Spain, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Italy, India and the United States. Famous and familiar images, many of which appeared in LIFE magazine.

The show concludes with examples of the many portraits Cartier-Bresson took... including wonderful images of Alberto Giacometti, Truman Capote, Henri Matisse and others.

It has been three decades since such an impressive collection of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work has been presented. It may be several more decades before such a collection is presented again. Simply put: Don't miss your chance!

"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" runs through June 28th at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Special Gallery Talk Lectures will be held on Saturday, May 1st (1:30PM)... Thursday, May 6th (11:30AM)... and Friday, May 7th (1:30PM)

A full exhibition catalog is available.

For more information, visit the exhibition's official site HERE

Or visit the website of the Museum of Modern Art at www.moma.org

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