An ‘autobiography’ of a great photojournalist |

An ‘autobiography’ of a great photojournalist

Jordan Curet
Aspen Times Weekly

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for the “decisive moment” for nearly half a century. In his photos, the Frenchman sought to capture both world events and small situations, to “trap life” at the moment it changed.

In the leather-bound pages of “Scrapbook,” however, outsiders get a glimpse into Cartier-Bresson’s relatively unknown early work, his process and artistic development. As the preface explains, “this body of work, taken as a coherent whole as aesthetic quest and process and the subjective commitment of an entire lifetime, remains to be examined.”

At the beginning of World War II, Cartier-Bresson was captured and held in a German prisoner of war camp for three years before escaping in 1943. To the outside world, Cartier-Bresson was presumed dead, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York was preparing a memorial exhibition.

When Cartier-Bresson returned alive, he helped assemble this retrospective. He selected and personally printed more than 300 examples of his best work, including many that had never been printed before. When he arrived in New York in April 1946, he bought a scrapbook, in which he diligently glued all the prints in chronological order. The album summed up what he considered his best work to date, making it a kind of autobiography.

Included in “Scrapbook” are portraits of luminaries, including Matisse and Picasso, as well as street photography, assigned photo essays, correspondence and historical documents. The photographs document his travels to Spain and Mexico and his encounters with Surrealism and modern art. The compilation provides a window onto Cartier-Bresson’s operating methods. Just as interesting, though, are the outtakes and other photographs that have never been seen before.

Take, for example, the well-known picture of a bicyclist riding past the bottom of a winding staircase in Hyeres. The symmetry of the frame in addition to the motion blur, appear as if it were a spontaneous, “decisive moment.” But Scrapbook reveals how he tested one angle, then another, looking for a picture that, in a sense, he already had in his mind. He then composed, in an instant, what materialized.

Thus Scrapbook provides a look into the mind and methods of one of the greatest photojournalists, offering the next generation lessons on how to shoot the “decisive moment.”

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