HCB at the MoMA in NYC

I don’t usually say to myself, “Gee, I wish I could go to New York City.” I’m more likely to sit back and thank God that I’m here in Texas. But today I’m wishing I could hop a plane to NYC, having just learned about the MoMA’s new show featuring the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson.


The link provides a slideshow with a generous sample of images. 

HCB (as he so often referred to by photographers) is the Picasso of photography in the first half of the twentieth century—that is, the dominant figure, the genius everybody who knows even a little about photography thinks of first when trying to think of a “great” photographer. 

And genius he surely was. Like all of the great photographers I really admire, Cartier-Bresson inspires me to admire his eye and his imagination rather than his technical prowess. I don’t ask myself, “What f-stop did he use for this photo?” Instead I ask myself, “How did he manage to put himself in position to photograph this extraordinary moment? How did he see it coming? If he arranged it, how was he able to imagine this image—and how did he manage to make it look so totally spontaneous?” 

Occasionally, I put myself in a great spot on purpose, and I’m excited (and a little proud of myself) when I do it. I was proud to have hauled my butt out of bed to photograph the lake in the deep fog, and later, in the middle of the blizzard of February 11 (2010). I had the lake to myself, by and large, and I did get some nice photos as a reward. 

But photographing the lake in a snowstorm is relatively easy—and obvious. Just wait for a snowstorm, then go out with a camera. What’s amazing about Cartier-Bresson’s images is that they almost always involve people. And people are less easily managed than landscapes. Consider this great image:

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Hyères, France, 1932.
Photo linked from the history of photography blog of Jeff Curto, College of DuPage.

I can imagine myself being fascinated by this staircase, if I somehow managed to put myself at the top of it. But to get the cyclist into the photo, well, of course it seems obvious in retrospect, but trust me, it wasn’t. And to get the cyclist going in that direction, and to capture the cyclist in exactly that position—that’s perfection or pretty close.


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