The Decisive Moment, it's called, the term synonymous with photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his gift for capturing images on film that have both journalistic excitement and artistic integrity. Because of that intuitive genius, he became and remains the most famous photojournalist in the world and was largely responsible for defining the aspirations of that profession.
We understand how and why in "The Man, the Image and the World: Henri Cartier-Bresson, A Retrospective" at the Tampa Museum of Art. The exhibition is huge, with more than 300 photographs, two films, personal memorabilia and examples of his work as it appeared in magazines. He selected the works for the show before his death in 2004 at 95.
Most of us are familiar with Cartier-Bresson's photographs even if we don't associate his name with them. As a photojournalist, his goal was to sell them to mass-market publications, and he was very successful during a long career. The old Life magazine, for example, was an excellent client.
From the beginning of his career in the early '30s, though, he believed photography could deliver more than visual information. By that time the medium was about 100 years old and many advances had been made, including the invention of more compact cameras. For most of his life, he used a small Leica, its metal wrapped in black tape to obscure his working methods, which were to find the most candid and telling shot, one that revealed and preserved an interesting, quirky or important moment in an unfolding scene.
He further changed photojournalism when he became part of a small group, led by the also-famous Robert Capa, who founded Magnum Photos in 1947. It was a cooperative that grew to include dozens of distinguished photographers, helping them with the administrative business of selling their work and establishing copyrights to it for them.
But Cartier-Bresson was at heart always an artist. He came from an affluent French family and studied painting and drawing, planning to pursue art as a career. He lived in Paris and was part of a circle that included leading Surrealists. Fortunately, as his painting wasn't all that great (his drawings were much finer), he became intrigued by the possibilities of photography, and his work from the early and mid 1930s at times reflects some of the movement's tenets.
A photograph taken in Mexico in 1934, for example, is charged with sexual innuendo. In it, a bare-chested man wearing mostly unzipped jeans sits next to shelves of used women's shoes. It's tightly composed with the frame divided into three sections, almost geometrically perfect, a study in the sensual and intellectual. It's also self-consciously arty. But he had several gallery shows under his belt by his mid 20s and was working with filmmaker Jean Renoir, wanting to learn that craft, too.
Then World War II broke out and Cartier-Bresson enlisted. He was captured by the Germans and spent almost three years in prisoner-of-war camps. He came out changed. He wanted his work to be a witness to world events and for the next 30 years, he roamed the globe in search of them.
His most famous photographs are from that mature period. You will remember many of them even if you didn't know their maker when you first saw them: One of his most unforgettable was taken in Germany in 1945, showing a newly released woman as she confronts her concentration-camp informant in a stunningly powerful encounter.
He had amazing access that gave him great opportunities. He was with Gandhi when he was assassinated in 1948, in China when Maoists won the civil war, and in the then Soviet Union during the early Khrushchev years when Western journalists were banned.
Most of the photographs reflect the everyday people who were experiencing extraordinary events. In Russia, a little boy and his father are walking across a square. Behind them, covering a multistory building, is an enormous poster of Lenin, who seems to be striding aggressively after them. In another, a man wearing only a thong faces another monolithic building, sunning himself as overcoat-clad people walk by. In Shanghai, he showed us the tipping point when a crowd of people turned into a mob. And in New Delhi, we see a stunned Nehru, prime minister of India, announcing the death of Gandhi to a grief-stricken crowd.
Cartier-Bresson's composition was immaculate. Study an image and you'll often notice a complex choreography of forms — architectural, natural — and the human intervention that takes the photograph from static still life to one alive with sudden movement.
He stopped his extensive traveling in the mid 1970s to spend more time with his family and to recommit himself to drawing. But he didn't put his camera down completely.
Most of the photographs from his later years are portraits of his friends who were themselves high profile. A series of Claude Monet in his studio, for example, reveals the artist relaxed and seemingly unaware of the camera, much like the famous series of Pablo Picasso in his studio by Cartier-Bresson's friend David Douglas Duncan. The sculptor Alberto Giacometti scurries through his studio carrying one of his bronzes in one photo, and in another crosses a rainy Paris street hunched in a raincoat.
The portraits especially provide insight into Cartier-Bresson's concept of the Decisive Moment and how it is interpreted today by many photographers who follow famous people. His approach to celebrity was respectful; he was allowed inside famous people's lives because they trusted him. He was interested in insight. Today, the more common approach to getting a telling shot is through stalking and surprise. It could be renamed the Embarrassing Moment.
Probably the time for such depth and breadth of photographic coverage of world events has passed because the outlets for publishing them — the picture magazines and the special sections in newspapers — are gone. The closest thing we have today are online galleries, which are generally small format. So there is a strain of melancholy in this exhibition, along with its grandness and eloquence, a requiem for a man who taught us to see better and know more.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.