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Cartier-Bresson: A master's black-and-white world

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"It's in living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the outside world," Cartier-Bresson wrote in his groundbreaking work published in English as "The Decisive Moment" (1952). Photography was his means to launch internal and external voyages of discovery, like some Marco Polo of the mind. The book's French title, "Images à la Sauvette," implies pictures taken on the sly, slices of life and light that illuminate hidden realms.

This offbeat viewpoint originated in the young Cartier-Bresson's taste for Surrealism and left-wing politics. Born to wealth and reared amid the trappings of privilege, he rebelled against a world where summer shelter meant a family chateau. At age 18 he dropped out of school and into an avant-garde milieu that rejected conventional artistic methods and morality. His cohort believed truth to be covert, enigmatic.

Cartier-Bresson's 1930s pictures helped to define photographic Modernism. To make images seem mysterious, almost magical, he distorted or partially obscured forms and displaced familiar objects from their context, emphasizing bold graphics and geometric patterns.

Some of his strongest images are from these years. In "Seville, Spain" (1933), ragamuffin children play amid the rubble caused by violence during the Spanish Civil War. Framed by the arc of a blasted building, boys throw rocks while one child balances precariously on a fragment of wall – what's left of their old way of life. Resilience vies with fragility and destruction in a picture that's both an epitaph and a bone-chilling preview.

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