Henri Cartier-Bresson at Peter Fetterman Gallery
By Simone Kussatz
In this art world jungle where many artists want to outdo each other by using sensationalism, provocation, and high-tech manipulated images, it feels soothing to view the works of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who knew how to create grand effects with a small German-made Leica. Cartier-Bresson’s sense for subtle, aesthetic composition, human dignity, historical relevance and psychological insight can be currently viewed in an exhibit that celebrates Peter Fetterman Gallery’s 20th anniversary. Henri Cartier-Bresson: Eye of the Century displays a collection of photographs created during Cartier- Bresson’s journeys to Belgium, former Yugoslavia, China, England, Greece, India, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Russia and the US with a strong focus on life in the 50s and 60s. The exhibit also includes landscape and street scene images of France, portrait photographs of Truman Capote, Alberto Giacometti, and Matisse as well as rare prints including a photograph by Cartier-Bresson taken in Provence about two decades after his retirement, when he'd returned to his first love, drawing.
The picture of children and women in Aquila Degli Abruzzi in central Italy is here too. The women are wearing long black dresses, their heads covered with black bandanas. Some wear aprons and carry cake trays on their heads while walking through the alleys, others are gathered at a plaza. It is an image of a slow-paced life. This high-angle shot exemplifies the influence of painting in Cartier-Bresson’s photography – perhaps the influence of André Lothe with whom he studied in Paris. Geometric forms appear as in cubist paintings or in Lothe’s L’Escale: triangles, rectangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids. A vertical axis created by a balustrade in the lower part of the photo and a building above it, as well as diagonal axes provide the photograph symmetry.
Next to Aquila Degli Abruzzi, there is a photograph of two girls walking through a narrow alley in a long shadow. It was shot in former socialist Sarajevo, the city where Islam, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Judaism have been coexisting for centuries. The image was taken two decades after the city was liberated from the occupancy of German Nazis and seventeen years before the Bosnian war, when Josip Broz Tito was president. The two girls with their braided hair, embracing each other and holding what appears to be school supplies, suggest the quiet and peaceful and political atmosphere at that time.
And then there is a photograph that had never been printed before by a collector until gallery owner, Peter Fetterman, discovered it in an obscure book years ago. It is the image of a fundraiser ball (a very posh event) for Queen Charlotte’s hospital, one of the oldest maternity hospitals in Europe. This high angle shot captures some of the same joie de vivre that Cartier-Bresson so much admired in Hungarian photographer, Martin Munkasci’s work, especially in his photograph of the three African nude boys running into the surf at Lake Tanganyika. Yet, it doesn’t have the spontaneity of the African boys; the action seems much more controlled, which is emphasized by Cartier-Bresson catching the dancing couples positioned in perfect diagonal lines. Due to their moving the image is a bit out of focus, which has some of the effect of an aquarelle blurring.
In Decisive Moment Cartier-Bresson wrote, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.” In photographs such as Barber Rome (1951) and Brussels, Belgium (1932) those human details are telling a story of absurdity and curiosity. There is the image of a barber standing next to a mannequin head covered with a wig, looking through his showcase touching his bald patch. How does he feel working with hair, while losing his? Or there are the two men in Brussels, one of them looking through a hole of a circus tent, the other with a handlebar mustache and distinctive features looking to the side as if he guards him or is distracted by something that catches his curiosity. What could it be?
The Roman Catholic Church enjoyed a huge political influence under Communism. That becomes obvious in Cartier-Bresson’s photo Mass, Warsaw, 1956. Again shot from a high angle, it shows a group of people herded together with a priest sitting in a hanging chair above them. Since the photo was taken in 1956, the year Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was released from his three-year detainment due to his opposition against communism; it’s possible that the photo showed a service with him.
Published in Whitehotmagazine November 2010.
Copyright © by Simone Kussatz
Copyright © by Simone Kussatz