Henri Cartier-Bresson : The Modern Century
at the Art Institute of Chicago, through October 3
To reverse Picasso’s famous epigram, photo-journalism is the truth that tells a lie. Yes, the photo-journalist really was on-site shooting people who really were ironworkers, priests, or baseball fans (instead of hired actors). But that’s where the reality ends – and whatever we imagine those people are doing is just that: our own imagination, aided by the photographer’s composition.
So what, for example, is happening in this shot of an executive with his nose in the air and his face conspicuously framed by images of great ocean liners? Is he an arrogant, ruthless captain of finance ? Or is he the assistant's assistant taking a break from paper pushing?
All of our responses are prompted by the composition, and apparently, back in the middle decades of the 20th C., there was a much larger market for big, glossy photo magazines that presented the world as lively and engaging, without a whole lot of critical thought required.
Cartier-Bresson and his colleagues ably serviced that market with photographs taken all over the world, and the vitrines in this exhibit display the resulting copies of popular magazines like "Life" and "Match"
Was Cartier-Bresson really the best of the lot?
Or was he just better connected to the artworld?
But there are certainly some wonderful photographs in this exhibit - beginning with the above scene from the Gare St. Lazare shot in 1932. How acrobatic! For the both the leaper and the photographer who framed that split-second leap so perfectly.
And what about this perfect image of sacramental contrition and forgiveness?
For history buffs, there's this great shot of the last Viceroy and the first Prime Minister of India, standing beside the happy, attractive woman who was the wife of one and allegedly the mistress of the other.
Perhaps the portraits are his best work, where personality, instead of social issues, can take center stage. And who can ever forget this iconic image of Matisse enjoying his life as an aging artist?
Though, I don't think we need to share his contempt for Americans
.... or his celebration of totalitarian regimes in Russia and China,
even if such attitudes were more acceptable in the artworld of his day.
And what's really missing from this exhibition is Cartier-Bresson's paintings and drawings, because, believe it or not, that was his preferred means of expression, with which he began and ended his career as an artist.
That's the sort of thing that can only be fully appreciated in a museum exhibition.
Most of the photographs are better seen in books or on-line , where they are not abused by reflections off the protective glass.
And does the Art Institute
really need yet another
This is the fourth
and the last one
was just in 2009.
One more issue I'd like to raise is the omniscient text up on gallery walls.
I have no problem with anonymous text that is exclusively factual information about dates and places.
But sometimes the text in this exhibition offers
opinions like this one:
"But his keen attention to particulars redeems the strain of romantic nostalgia in his work, and his vision of premodern societies"
And just whose opinion is this? The curator's ?
(Peter Galassi, from M.O.M.A.).
Gallery walls are fine places for opinions,
but let the authors be credited,
so that dialogue will be encouraged.