Ryan and I attended Peter Galassi’s talk at the High on Thursday night and got to preview the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit. The talk was informative, if not overly-charming, and Ryan volunteered (this may be a loose interpretation of how it played out) to write up the talk and show.
In case you’re in a hurry, here’s the bottom line: Talk, interesting. Show, go. In Ryan’s words:
Although sold out, luckily, I was able to attend Peter Galassi’s talk at the High Museum about Henri Cartier-Bresson. Galassi, MOMA’s fourth curator of photography, introduced Cartier-Bresson’s travelling exhibit to a captivated Atlanta audience. I was particularly looking forward to this lecture because of Cartier-Bresson’s influence on my own photographic career.
Cartier-Bresson images were some of the first I fell in love with, especially his early work, when the weight of the world had yet to focus his political goals and he was free to experiment with surrealist notions of photography. Images such as Place de l’Europe, Gare Saint Lazare (1932) or The Var department, Hyères (1932) displayed the way Cartier-Bresson was able to capture what has been called the “decisive moment” while at the same time arranging and composing his photographs so that every part of the image contains meaning and balances the graphical nature of his early work. These simple, yet complex compositions were even more amazing because of the tool, a small Leica rangefinder, he used to capture his photographs. As Galassi pointed out, Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer with the small camera in a time when serious photography was executed with large-format or at least medium format cameras. Cartier-Bresson’s experimentations would continue until World War II, when he would undergo a serious transformation both personally and photographically.
Galassi spoke primarily of Cartier-Bresson, himself, providing intimate details that are inaccessible by viewing the work alone. These details helped provide the context for the changes in Cartier-Bresson’s work over time. For example, Galassi stated that after World War II and many months spent as a P.O.W., Cartier-Bresson would adapt his free-flowing practice of photography to engage instead in only capturing the world. Stylistically, Cartier-Bresson remained very close to his early work, but with a more focused subject matter. His penchant for observing the world and attacking it with his camera until the perfect moment unfolded brought a directness and immediacy to the images that became a signature style of his Magnum photographs. Cartier-Bresson would continue in this vein for much of his career; however, as Galassi pointed out, his style would subtly shift in the later years, especially in his work from Japan.
Although still capable of arranging simple shapes and form to provide impact, his later work became more complex and busy. Cartier-Bresson started to embrace the chaotic nature of a scene by including multiple subjects within one photograph. Galassi pointed to a few images from his travels in Japan from the later half of the 1960s; one in particular that illustrated this point was a scene from a Samurai reenactment. In the foreground, there is a Japanese man dressed in western wear (suit and tie) while surrounded by women in Meiji-era clothing; while in the background we can see the “samurai” preparing themselves for the event. This type of juxtaposition between opposites can be seen in Cartier-Bresson’s early work, but not to the extent that it occurs in his later work.
Galassi closed with reminding the audience of the name of the exhibition, “The Modern Century.” According to the Galassi, this title is to show the changes not only in the political landscape of the past century, but also the photographic changes that had to occur within Cartier-Bresson’s own work as modernity took hold over every part of the world.
After the lecture let out, the audience was treated to extended hours at the High in order to view the exhibition. I was able to see the exhibit when it was at MOMA in NYC over the summer and was eager to see how the High would install the work. In both museums, when entering the exhibition, you get a sense of scale of Cartier-Bresson’s massive amount of work with each museum displaying more than 300 works. To the High’s credit, I believe the installation of show has been pulled off better in Atlanta than in New York. There is more room in the High for the work to breathe, more space to get absorbed in Cartier-Bresson’s work. As if the High sensed the overwhelming nature of the work, there are places within the exhibition to sit and peruse books by and of Cartier-Bresson, couches to lounge on and tables to do work. At MOMA, the exhibition felt cramped and if the museum was busy, you shuffled along the walls to get just a glimpse of the work. At the High, you can pace yourself, room by room, to take in the enormity of Cartier-Bresson’s work. I am very excited that this work will be here for the coming months and look forward to getting back there as many times as I can to absorb as much photographic goodness as I can.