Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, spent months working out the exact placement of the 300 pieces of paper pinned to his office walls. Each one contains a miniature reproduction of a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph, and together they constitute the exhibition plan for the first show of the French photojournalist’s work since his death, in 2004, at age 95.
“The Modern Century” presents an overview of the photographer’s diverse choice of subjects–from a well-dressed spectator at a bullfight in Pamplona, Spain, whose finery matches that of the matadors, to a banker working in a New York office tower–and features 60 never-before-shown photos.
Opening on April 11 at MoMA and traveling to the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the show challenges long-established ways of presenting and discussing Cartier-Bresson’s work. Take the phrase “the decisive moment,” which, ever since it was used as the English title of the photographer’s 1952 book, has been associated with his ability to capture an enduring image in a fraction of a moment. “‘The decisive moment’ is very boring,” Galassi says. “So many people would rather talk about an idea than look at the picture.”
What Galassi sees–and what became his primary organizing principle for the show–is the work’s historical reach. He recalls a conversation he had with Cartier-Bresson: “He said, ‘You have to remember, the 1930s were still the 19th century.’ I think he was more right than we realize.” Three sections of the show, “Old World East,” “Old World West,” and “Old World France,” focus on the artist’s images from the ’30s. “The patterns of life before machines and consumerism is clearly a prominent theme in his work,” Galassi says.
The years Cartier-Bresson was most productive as a photojournalist, from the ’30s through the ’60s, saw tremendous technological and political transformations. For Magnum Photos, which he cofounded, the photographer documented Gandhi’s funeral, the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, China during the Cultural Revolution, and other significant moments. Galassi has grouped such photographs under the headings “Encounters and Gatherings,” “After the War, End of an Era,” and “Portraits.” Also in the show are story layouts from copies of Life and Paris Matchmagazines.
In his essay for the catalogue, Galassi covers the minutiae of Cartier-Bresson’s photojournalism, right down to the bulk rolls of film he would load into his camera at night, his numbering system for his negatives (he exposed more than half a million frames in three decades), and his correspondence with his Magnum agent. Cartier-Bresson rarely looked at his images after he snapped them.
Toward the end of his essay, Galassi writes of his surprise at finding a shift, during the ’60s, in Cartier-Bresson’s compositional style, which was otherwise remarkably consistent. “This is the last thing I expected to find when I embarked on this project, and I don’t pretend to understand it,” he writes.
In his office, Galassi unpins a 1938 photograph of a group of workers in Juvisy, France, and one from 1969 of a Club Med resort. While the workers, having a picnic by a calm river, are captured fully in the frame as if in a contained world, the Club Med photo shows many bodies only half in the frame, and the background is chaotic. “This is just a beginning. There are many projects to be pursued in more depth,” he says.
Amanda Gordon is associate editor of ARTnews.