Cartier-Bresson at MoMA - a quick review
Friday evening I zoomed up to midtown and got on line for the free friday night at MoMA. From the back of the line to the 6th floor inside took all of 10 minutes. Pretty impressive since I heard the line can be horrible right at 4.
Let me say right off that Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of my favorite photographers. Or rather, some of his photographs are some of my favorite photographs. He himself seemed like a snooty rich guy, but I'll put that aside for now. And I was greatly looking forward to the exhibit which had collected probably 120 images, almost all early vintage prints, in one place. Very exciting stuff, and one of the reasons I like in New York. A few weeks ago I bumped into a friend on the subway who was returning from seeing a preview that members were allowed to see before it opened to the public. He raved about it, so put this all together and I was very excited to see it myself.
Once there my excitement was a bit more tempered because I realized a few things. First, with photographers of his stature, you've seen all of his best work, say the top 30 photographs, at least a hundred times. (I did notice that some of his 'greatest hits' were missing, so the show isn't exhaustive) And they're his best known work for a reason. Though I found some of the shots from China interesting, I must admit that I only saw a few new to me images which caught my eye. This one for example is amazing. It was however, the exception rather than the rule. In some ways it amazed me that after 60+ years of shooting these were really the best 100+ images. The best of them were certainly some of the best images ever taken, but the second tier stuff just wasn't nearly as satisfying. I guess that's part of what you get from being a street photographer. It's about luck and numbers.
And secondly since he shot 35mm, most of the prints are fairly small (say 8x12") and from a time when prints were of much lower contrast and not as punchy as we're used to today, so the pratical upshot is that in some ways you can get a similar effect by looking through a large well printed book. Which is funny because there were tables set up in the middle of the room with copies of the book which as many people were looking through as were scanning the walls.
Also interesting was the fact that almost every one of my favorite images was taken in the 30's towards the beginning of his career. I'm not sure if his eye had changed or if perhaps some of the magic came from the subjects and their dress and the architecture and look of the time in which they were taken. Pre-WWII in Europe had quite an ethereal feel in my mind.
I did particularly liked the portraits section, an often overlooked part of his life's work, however ICP had an amazing show of only his portraits a couple years ago which I found much more coheasive as a whole. I highly recommend the book from that show.
It's not to say that it was a bad show. In fact if it were of a photographer I had never heard of, I'd probably be raving. But this isn't just some photographer, this is a hall of famer and somehow I wanted and frankly expected more. The exhibit is open until June 28th, so don't take my word for it and go check it out for yourself. Much like the Robert Frank show from a few months ago, even though I wasn't blown away, it was well worth seeing them in person.