What realizations, I wondered, were the museum’s visitors making as they wove through the halls of the MOMA. Like myself, they had come to see _The Modern Century_, a collection of 300 works by famed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. While I went the first day, April 11th, his work will continue to show until June 28th. Perhaps to commemorate the opening of a new show at one of the city’s most esteemed museums, a horde of Manhattan intelligencia stuffed the narrow corridors. Despite the implicit vow of silence, the space hummed with their quiet muttering, pointing and scrutiny. Indeed, I could not hear their thoughts, but I could hear them thinking. As I slowly paced from picture to picture, I sought to extrapolate both meaning and inspiration from the marvelous exhibit; neither venture was entirely successful. But for me, photography is a difficult and dear art.
That Cartier-Bresson’s photographs were fantastic hardly needs stating. Aesthetically, each photograph was compelling. Part of the allure is his medium—black and white film photography has a remarkable, meditative ambiance, which I can almost taste in the rich, dark dyes. Despite their crispness, such photos sometimes resemble paintings. And yet, not every photographer who uses this medium has an exhibit in the MOMA; no, these photographs have a distinct flavor. Cartier-Bresson helped mold photojournalism, and his uncanny affinity with candid shots, his ability to freeze spontaneity, has earned him a hallowed seat within the history of photography. His photography not only relates facts as they happen, but also facts as they are felt. His long career produced numerous collections of street photography, documents of time, which endure as history, and yet resound with the present.
In one such photo-essay, Cartier captures the business atmosphere at a bankers trust in New York in 1960. Through this series, in which every picture shares the name _Bankers Trust, New York_, we are witnesses, almost accomplices, to a historical transformation. The frames are mere slivers of the cultural and technological shift of the 1960’s, and logically cannot serve are representations for the entire country. And yet, they do. The photographs relate the reinvention of efficiency: workers drowning in papers, women poised within a male-dominated workspace, and the burden of mechanized bustle. The background, too, has character. The drab walls, and the clean, crisp desks, the monotonous tiled floors, the file cabinets which stand like bulwarks, underscore the order of the office, and create the perfect environment for the suited professionals. With impressive success, the series both records and narrates the changes within the workplace; he succeeds using more obvious clues (the outdated machinery, and the antiquated clothing) and silent clues (folded legs, evocative eyes and busied hands), which together connote rigidity, efficiency and historical transformation. It is Cartier-Bresson’s talent, which converts spontaneity into organization, and imposes balance and composition upon unpredictability.
But almost as dated as the photographs themselves is the medium. Once, these images filled magazines and newspapers. Now, they are alluring antiques strung upon the walls of museums. Photography has changed; it no longer possesses visual limitations. Take a moment flipping through a magazine, or watching lush television advertisements—quite a few of them are riveting. Indeed, I would wager that decadent blockbusters such as _Terminator Salvation_ or _Transformers_ offer more visual bounty than any of Cartier-Bresson’s images, though they are admittedly of a different nature. And I won’t deny that models, particularly those enhanced by software, which monopolize numerous magazine covers, provide a pleasant visual respite. Moreover, such visual splendor is unequivocally more democratic than it was even 10 years ago. With a normal digital camera, only a dash of luck and a sprinkle of ingenuity are required to take the occasional, evocative picture. A more expensive camera, which may run into the hundreds or the lower thousands, can capture images with such crispness that they seem instantly professional. With the same luck and ingenuity, an amateur might produce work reminiscent of work in _National Geographic_ or the _New York Times._
And yet, my alarmist concern betrays my disquieting assumptions. I tend to operate, as others do, under the belief that art necessitates exclusion. If everyone can do it, is it still art? And I don’t trust my eyes—intuitively attractive photographs must be validated by the authorship of a respected photographer before I can declare my support. I can’t tell what’s good, truly good, without some direction, and I am quick to extol inscrutable work with acclaim because others deem it worthy. With the explosion of digital photography, and new venues for such expression (notably Flickr and Facebook), culling through the droves of new photographs for reputable art seems devastatingly more challenging. But as this technological direction is not changing, my criteria for powerful photography must, either to incorporate the flood of new artists or to protect photography from the dilution of mass production.
Cartier-Bresson is on the end of a changing tradition. Perhaps at one point, his photography was the only gateway to the world at large. And his snapshots of life were, for that generation and that period, novel. No longer. His ability to access the primordial appeal of the human eye remains, for most people, arcane knowledge. But media companies have written a recipe for eye candy, and they produce it in large amounts. Technology, meanwhile, expands beyond oceanic boundaries. With hardly a modicum of effort, I can peruse the world’s most abject slums, or extravagant oases, both of which I may never visit in person and both of which simply slide over my passive eyes. As a source of information, Cartier-Bresson is unimpressive. And as a source of visual decadence, his work is only marginally successful.
Yes, his medium is antiquated, largely outdated, but his masterpieces endure. His appeal is the impressive composition of his work, its agile organization and, frankly, its age. I can recall what was, for me, the most poignant image in the exhibit. Entitled _Seeing Television for the First Time, Industrial Progress Exhibition, Beijing_, this shot depicts a large group of engrossed spectators fixated together on one tube. Their expressions vary; some exhibit surprise, others burst with excitement and a few are utterly uninterested (one woman is looking away, something elsewhere draws her attention). But their responses are sincere, and the frame is skillfully composed. The heads converge into a dazzled mob; the impression of the moment on these viewers leaks through the image. The irony of using technology to observe the expansion of technology compounds the nostalgic humor of the scene. But what sustains the life, the power of this image is its temporal statement. While innumerable images on the Internet serve as doors to distant lands, this image is a pathway to the past, for that moment can never happen again, not just because the people themselves have moved on, but also because that historical moment is over. That specific spark of discovery has been forever extinguished by the technological saturation of the 21st century. And behold his skill, Cartier-Bresson is not just a photojournalist, but a photolyricist—written in their faces is an intuitive glow that, it’s fair to say, most everyone can detect. When I see this image, I don’t just know, I feel that these people have discovered something new. This decisive moment (a phrase which Cartier-Bresson himself coined) contains an element of magic, historical fiction written with facts, which hearkens to a shared human code.
Coco Chanel lazily embraces her thin cigarette, leans upon her plush couch and stares with empty, rigid eyes. Her epicurean tastes reveal themselves in her extravagant surroundings. One might say this image is all about the individual. During his esteemed career, Cartier-Bresson took many such portraits of famous socialites, usually members of the intellectual or artistic community; for the viewer, who almost certainly recognizes the name and face, context and fame make this voyeuristic invasion of Chanel’s privacy meaningful. But like many of his photographs, which depict people unknown, unnamed, forgotten, the individual is utterly meaningless. It is the expression, the poise, the sentiment, and the intuitive empathy, which resonate with viewers across the social spectrum. What such images mean, I cannot say. But that they have meaning within and outside of their historical context speaks to the artistry of Cartier-Bresson and the beauty of his work. His subjects are quintessentially human but practically immortal. As Cartier-Bresson himself said: “Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things.” Cartier-Bresson reproduces this rhythm with his work, that all of us might hear it. Technology has forever changed photography, but it cannot threaten the preeminence of his genius. The intuitive human spark, frustratingly difficult to define and articulate, no camera can implant. Moreover, his work possesses a richness of time and a fascination with truth, which these technologies do no share. Unlike the visually monopolistic work of the present, these images tell their stories gently and patiently. Their messages slowly seep through the viewer’s eyes, graze his mind and embrace his very being.