There's a funny bit in the press release for SFMoMA's Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century show, wherein we're advised that this vast retrospective "features some 300 prints from Cartier-Bresson's professional career from 1929 to 1989, with an emphasis on the years 1932 to 1973." Yes, the career spans six decades, but for emphasis they've narrowed the focus to, um, four decades.
That's just how it goes with the progenitor of modern photojournalism, who took to heart a 17th-century clergyman's proclamation that "there is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment," and made it his modus operandi. He was almost defiantly wide-ranging.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Juvisy, France," 1932.
Accordingly, The Modern Century does flit around, both chronologically and geographically. The native Frenchman shot his way through Europe, Africa, the Americas, India, China and the Soviet Union, and never seemed to be scurrying, merely readying. Even his most important pictures also seem insouciant. His timing was intuitive, but his composition rigorous. And we can see his emerging sensibility, made possible by portable equipment, Surrealist pals, and largely self-directed photojournalistic priorities. It became a style, a lifestyle. As one wall placard explains, "With a camera in his hand and a few rolls of film in his pocket, Cartier-Bresson never needed to decide if he was working or just living." No wonder he was so influential.
In any case, he usually knew just what to do, at least photographically, be it with Gandhi's funeral, ladies legs on a 1960 San Francisco sidewalk, or that one chance snap from Sardinia, in 1962, with nine darkly dressed men gathered on a grassy hill in just such a way as to resemble a Dutch master's painting.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, "World's Fair, Brussels, Belgium," 1958.
This show has flickers of curatorial frolic, as with adjacent pictures of enlaced lovers -- from Coney Island in 1946, and Romania in 1975 -- or the brief array of enchantments filed under "Beauty" and situated just across the hall from equally acute records of "vulgar depredations, messy accumulations, and sprawling hedonism." Mostly, though, it's the viewer's privilege and delight to be left alone sussing out congruities -- as between the mirrored, silhouetted street-flood hopper in 1932's "Behind the Gare St. Lazare," possibly Cartier-Bresson's most famous picture, and, say, the dancing girls in an athletic parade for the ninth anniversary of the People's Republic of China.
It's obvious now how much the world has changed since Cartier-Bresson made his project of recording it. What's easy to forget, until seeing this exhibition, anyway, is the enduring grace of his intrepidity. Who knew a decisive moment could last so long?
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century runs through January 30, 2011, at SFMOMA in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit sfmoma.org.