Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment at International Center for Photography (ICP)

Art Scene

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment at International Center for Photography (ICP)

The work of legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is known worldwide for its association with a particular style – the decisive moment. However, the term came out of the translation of his iconic book, Images à la Sauvette, first published in French. Although the English version of the book ended up being titled, The Decisive Moment, the direct translation of the French title, “images on the run.” may be a more accurate description (or at least an equally potent one) of the images within the book.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 34, Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1934. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment, on viewat International Center for Photography (ICP), explores the content of Cartier-Bresson’s book and its celebrated history as one of the most influential examples of photography as narrative form. The small scale black and white photographs, identically presented in black frames with white matte, line the walls of the gallery space at eye level in rapid fire. On first glance, the sheer number of images may be overwhelming.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 119-120, Rice Field, Sumatra, Indonesia, 1949. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Vintage gelatin silver prints of street scenes, pilgrimages, and unplanned portraits among other topics—from Mexico, Spain, France, Pakistan, South East Asia, the United States and more—are on view. Loose portraits of writers Truman Capote, Jean-Paul Sartre and William Faulkner may be the only recognizable figures in the body of work. However, people are central to Cartier-Bresson’s subject matter. Everyday, ordinary and unglamourous aspects of life in numerous locations around the world give viewers a brief insight into other people’s “moments.” Whether it’s singing, performing, hanging out, waiting or working, the images tell us more about general qualities of life than the personal narratives of Cartier-Bresson’s subjects.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 69, Henri Matisse and His Model Micaela Avogadro, Vence, France, 1944. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

In addition to photographs, the exhibition includes first-edition publications, periodicals, and correspondence highlighting the collaborative process that went into making the book. Cartier-Bresson, the French art publisher Tériade, American publisher Simon and Schuster, and Henri Matisse, who designed the book’s cover, were all involved. The inclusion of these materials in the exhibition makes it possible for viewers to imagine the editing, negotiation and meeting of minds and talent that went into this formative and defining work in the career of Cartier-Bresson—and, subsequently its impact on how Cartier-Bresson has been understood in the larger public. Of significance is the fact that the project involved a series of individual photographs presented as a collection to be viewed in the movement of turned pages within a book, perhaps amplifying the idea of “images of the run.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 59–60, Boston, United States, 1947. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

However, a close take of certain individual photographs reveals a compositional, artistic quality that seems to go beyond a decisive moment, moving into a sense of timelessness or essence.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment at International Center for Photography (ICP) is on view through September 2, 2018.