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Vienna's Kunsthaus exhibition takes us on a journey into Cartier-Bresson's photographic cosmos
USA. New York City. Manhattan. 1947. Near the Hall of Records. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos.

VIENNA.- The photographer, artist and film director Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) was a widely travelled, cosmopolitan observer of world events. Even during his lifetime, Henri CartierBresson, more than any other 20th-century photographer, was regarded as the personification of modern photography. He always emphasised that his passion was not for photography per se, but for life, and that he saw himself not as a traveller but as an observer of events, who sojourned in various different cultures.

Henri Cartier-Bresson studied painting with the cubist André Lhote, was influenced by the surrealists around André Breton and took inspiration from the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. He influenced generations of photographers through the aesthetic of his prolific photographic oeuvre and his penetrating thoughts on the theory and practice of photography. His book “Images à la Sauvette” (English title: “The Decisive Moment”), published in 1952, is one of the most-quoted volumes in the history of photography. In 1947 he co-founded Magnum Photos, an agency that became a benchmark for social commitment in photographic journalism as well as for highest photographic quality.

The exhibition takes us on a journey into Cartier-Bresson’s photographic cosmos, presenting photos taken by him over a period of five decades in three highly dissimilar countries – the USA, India and the Soviet Union – during important phases of their history.

Of all the countries that Henri Cartier-Bresson visited, the USA was of particular significance for his professional development as a photographer. After a year in Africa, followed by lengthy travels through Europe and Latin America and, finally, a year in Mexico, CartierBresson arrived in New York City in the spring of 1935. On long walks through its streets and boroughs, he photographed his impressions of the city during the years of economic crisis. He had decided to become a photographer in 1932, and only one year later his first solo exhibition had been held at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. Soon afterwards, his photographs also began appearing in the illustrated press.

After years as a prisoner of war in Germany and then as a member of the resistance in France, Cartier-Bresson returned to New York in the spring of 1946. In 1947 the Museum of Modern Art in New York devoted a first major retrospective to his works. Despite the recognition he was receiving from the art world, Cartier-Bresson turned to photographic journalism. He travelled with the author Truman Capote to New Orleans on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar, and took a road trip across the USA with the poet and critic John Malcolm Brinnin. The book containing his sobering images of conditions in the USA shortly after World War II was not published until almost half a century later, however

Although he was not present at the founding of Magnum Photos at the restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in April of 1947, his influence on the development of this cooperative agency owned by the photographers themselves was to be strongly felt for many years to come. Cartier-Bresson and his co-founders Robert Capa, David Seymour, Richard Rodger and William Vandivert divided the world among them. Cartier-Bresson’s photographic territory was Asia, which determined his travels over the following years and was probably related to the fact that he was at that time married to the dancer Ratna Mohini of Jakarta, Indonesia. Nevertheless, he also spent long periods of time in the USA over the following decades, during which time he documented the development of the country in photographs and also made two documentary films.

During the years of massive geopolitical changes following World War II, Cartier-Bresson was often in exactly the right places at key moments in history. He observed the dramatic process of decolonisation in various Asian countries at close hand and captured the events on camera. Cartier-Bresson and his wife arrived in Bombay at the end of 1947, shortly after India had declared its independence.

On 30 January 1948, he had a private meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, during which the spiritual leader of India’s independence movement browsed through the catalogue of Cartier-Bresson’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Shortly after their conversation, Gandhi was assassinated. Cartier-Bresson rushed back to the house and photographed the events in the hours and days following Gandhi’s death. Those photographs went around the world.

Cartier-Bresson remained in India until September 1948 and returned to that country for a stay of several months in 1950 and again in 1966. Between those two trips, he travelled all over Asia, including China, where he documented the collapse of imperial China and the rise of Communism. His photos of India not only capture key moments in political history, but also offer insights into the everyday life of the various groups in Indian society and impressions of the culture and landscape of the subcontinent.

Soviet Union
When Joseph Stalin died in Moscow on 5 March 1953, Henri Cartier-Bresson applied for a visa to visit the Soviet Union. Thanks to a Soviet film director who presented CartierBresson’s book “Images à la Sauvette” at the Kreml, Cartier-Bresson was allowed to enter the USSR in July 1954, thereby becoming the first internationally renowned photographer to travel in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. Although his movements were constantly monitored, Cartier-Bresson managed to document the everyday life of the people in this enormous country which at that time was essentially inaccessible to Westerners.

In addition to Moscow, he visited Georgia, Uzbekistan and the Caucasus. In 1955, two extensive photo series by Cartier-Bresson appeared in magazines such as LIFE and Paris Match. Here, too, Cartier-Bresson was on the scene during a historically significant phase. Stalin’s death signified the end of an era and brought a temporary thaw in relations between the two power blocs surrounding the superpowers USA and Soviet Union during the Cold War. Cartier-Bresson returned in the early 1970s to update his impressions of the USSR, as was his custom with many other countries.

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