Arts & Culture » Theater

Decisive Moments: International Photography HOF stages beautiful survey of 20th-century street photography



It would be hard to overstate the influence Henri Cartier-Bresson has had on modern photography. As the eldest son of wealthy textile producers, he refined his eye for formal composition under the tutelage of the post-cubist artist André Lhote, soon falling in with the Surrealists as he lived a bohemian Parisian existence — frequenting the city's cafés, bars and brothels, flirting with Communism, and trying his hand as a painter. It wasn't until the early 1930s, however, that Cartier-Bresson took up the handheld camera.

The highly portable device freed him from the studio. It became, he once said, his "sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant." With his unassuming Leica in hand, the globetrotting Frenchman could now prowl the streets, merging his formal aesthetic training with the spontaneity of street life to capture "eternity through the moment" — a journalistic and artistic ideal that has influenced generations of photographers.

Several of Cartier-Bresson's most iconic images are now on view at Decisive Moments — 20th Century Street Photography, a lush and likeable survey that opened last Friday at the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. Organized by Ellen Curlee, the show seeks to place Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries in a broader cultural context, while also charting their influence on subsequent photographers like Bruce Davidson and Lee Friedlander. Culled from the private collections of four area collectors, the show is rich in significant, well-known images: Cartier-Bresson's lovely shot of an elderly Matisse in the studio he temporarily transformed into an aviary, Marc Riboud's 1953 image of a worker striking a balletic pose while dabbing paint on the Eiffel Tower, or Davidson's haunting 1958 image of a circus dwarf who smokes a cigarette while in clown face.

And the list goes on.

The show, which fills two rooms in the recently opened IPHF, seeks less to give a chronological reckoning of street photography than it does to tease out its various influences and legacies. Presenting the work thematically, Decisive Moments moves from surrealists like Man Ray, who were intrigued by the medium's graphic, non-documentary potential, to André Kertész (Cartier-Bresson's "source poetique"), whose modernist attention to composition informs works like Washington Park (1954), which uses the camera's viewfinder to impose a formal structure on the park's unruly trees and meandering paths.

Like Kertész, who often used his camera to frame graphic elements of the urban landscape, Cartier-Bresson also incorporated compositional formality into his pictures. To take photographs, he once said, "means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning." So it is in Siphnos, Greece, his iconic image from 1961 that is near painterly in its sumptuous rendering of sun-bleached Cycladic architecture. The white buildings divide the frame into successive rectangular planes of positive and negative space — a pattern echoed in their doors and windows. From the bottom of the frame a stairway so richly textured it could be made of cake icing forms the base of a triangle, which leads the viewer to the exact center of the photograph: the mysterious, blurred image of a running child. It is an instantaneous fusion of art and journalism, creating a scene that is at once meaningful yet open to interpretation. Taken alone, the work's composition is marvelous, but had Cartier-Bresson been a fraction of a second later, the child would have disappeared. The human element—"the fact itself"—would have vanished, and the decisive moment would be lost.

Other works in the show, however, are a little too neatly rendered to be purely spontaneous. Take Robert Doisneau's unambiguous Un Regard Oblique (1948). Shot from inside an art gallery, the famous image shows a middle-aged couple peering in from the sidewalk. The woman gestures as she says something about the painting directly before them. Her husband pretends to be listening, but his mind is elsewhere: He's stealing a furtive glance at a painting to their right of a comely nude in nothing but a pair of stockings. (The image is one of several from a series Doisneau captured from the same vantage point — a sort of erstwhile hidden-camera gag.)

These images, so iconic, are immensely pleasurable to see in person, and if the show has one weakness it can be found only in the very abundance of photographs it presents. Decisive Moments argues, for instance, that a strong vein of futurism was present at the birth of street photography. While this may be true, the show's representative works — George Tice's famous 1978 detail from the Chrysler Building, or Ted Croner's splendid image of a streaking taxicab from 1949 — are less convincing for their anachronism and lack of human subjects, Cartier-Bresson's "fact itself." There are other aberrations as well: Michael Eastman makes an appearance, and largely unpopulated cityscapes by Lee Friedlander and Michael Kenna, stunning on their own terms, seem a bit off topic and superfluous.

But these are quibbles, and Decisive Moments, which also includes gorgeous, heartbreaking works by Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott and Peter Sekaer generally seduces as a lighthearted and expansive tour of street photography through the 1990s. While some of the images do not explicitly evoke the decisive moment, many speak to a sort of hopefulness, making the show's case that the handheld camera unleashed a wave of photographers who merged art with journalism, fundamentally altering the way we look at the world and filling it with images that are hard not to like and easy to love.

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