Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was to photography what the Impressionists were to painting. Those breakthrough artists grasped that the latest innovation in technology--pre-mixed paints, packaged in tubes--allowed them to go outside their studios and chronicle the life they found there. In much the same way, Cartier-Bresson rejected the heavy studio-based camera, covered the shiny lens of a lightweight Nikon with black tape so his subjects would be less inclined to notice him, and took to the streets.
What he invented there was, essentially, photojournalism.
He shot and shot and shot some more, looking for "the decisive moment" that revealed its subject and maybe much more. When he found it, he turned his film over to the lab--he had no interest in printing, less in cropping.
The show includes his revealing portraits of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound and Giacometti. But the decisive moment did not necessarily mean photographing Personages and Celebrities. In 1937, he was assigned to shoot the coronation of King George VI. He took not a single shot of the king. His subjects? The king's subjects, who filled the streets to cheer their new monarch.
Cartier-Bresson's photographs of civilians are body blows. Look at the picture on the cover of Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century--a mother-and-son reunion at the end of World War II. No one shot post-war conflict like Cartier-Bresson. Kids playing games amidst rubble. The denunciation of a woman accused of collaborating with the Germans. Mourners during the Algerian conflict.
For 30 years, Cartier-Bresson was everywhere. In Shanghai, during a run on the banks. In India, to take some of the last pictures of Gandhi--and, from close-up, his funeral pyre.
What especially dazzles is the clarity of his images. Women on a hilltop in Pakistan in 1949 hold their hands in prayer, their feet echoing the line of the distant mountains. A bicyclist makes a turn at the bottom of a curving staircase. A man slips over a puddle, his image reflected in the water.
Simple stuff. An eight-year-old can grasp the ideas and be excited by them. And adults can have their visual palettes refreshed, the better to see, as Cartier-Bresson did, "eternity in an instant."