Exhibition Review: Henri Cartier Bresson at the Rubin Museum
Henri Cartier-Bresson India in Full-Frame at the Rubin Museum, April 21 - September 4
Written by Jody B. Cutler
Fitting for a photographer who staked out an aesthetic of “decisive moments,” (the title of his first book of photographs, 1952), Henri Cartier-Bresson had many of these moments throughout his photojournalistic career, some by design, some unexpected. Among them, a photo session with Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay (Mumbai) the day before his assassination, followed by witness to the massive ritual mourning. Coming shortly after Cartier-Bresson and cohorts founded the Magnum agency, the results of his first sojourn to India (1947-18) not only set his successful vocational course, but facilitated the critical abridgment of documentary photography to art broadly, despite his own skepticism on the topic. Nonetheless, their commercial publication notwithstanding, he exhibited the black and white images displayed at the Rubin, taken in India across two decades, as independent prints (produced variously at Magnum and with which he had little concern) in art galleries and museums. Revisiting them in this format brings into “full frame” his exceptional viewfinder vision.
Among his first subjects in the immediate aftermath of independence from Britain and the partition of the subcontinent was an extensive refugee camp in the Punjab (now, northern Haryana state), in which the multitudinous displacement is portrayed through “found” atmospheric perspectives and rhythms that inject artistic flourish into the reportage. Several images in this group span uniform tent peaks diminishing towards the horizon, including Drying the Laundry on a Tree (1947), which centralizes an open dwelling but shades the interior, personal space. Refugees Exercising (1947) also depicts health, order and agency in the context of the chaos beyond the frame. These, as well as many others throughout, draw attention to the movement of cloth swaths and wraps typical in attire across gender and social, religious and ethnic divisions in the region. A tour de force in this regard is Women Spreading out their Saris Before the Sun (Gurjarat, 1966), in which figures arrange the rectangular textiles at the edge of the sea, recalling, structurally, the linen-bleaching fields in Dutch painting and patterns ofdistant, flowing chadors in contemporary photographic work by Shirin Neshat.
Likewise, several street scenes, a genre claiming Cartier-Bresson as progenitor, convey attitudes and foreground juxtapositions that divert the viewer’s gaze. In An Astrologer’s Shop in the Mill Workers’ Quarter of Parel (Bombay, 1947) for example, a split-screen effect at the picture plane abuts the legible shop sign with a dimmed, shallow interior inhabited by two men who glance nonchalantly towards the camera. Others, such as Street Photographer in the Old City (Delhi, 1966) and In the Old Town (Ahmedabad, Gurajat 1966), which each depict sleepers against trompe l’oeil backdrops—respectively, a painted architectural courtyard piercing a brick façade and a precise architectural silhouette in shadow, shift ethnographic focus to surrealist evocation.
In light of our current post-colonial worldview and ongoing attempts by artists (broadly) exploring cross-cultural human experience to mitigate neocolonial approaches, the exhibition begs consideration of whether and how the featured images may reflect, supplement, or deflect (as I have suggested) lingering Orientalist viewpoints and pictorial conventions. Cognoscenti may recall critiques of the photographic series, Steve McCurry: India, at the Rubin last year (November 18, 2015 – April 4, 2016) that questioned its documentary status in tandem with the sensory appeal of its pre-modern subject emphasis in “too-perfect” pictures.[i] Of course, close comparisons of work by Cartier-Bresson and McCurry are limited by the latter’s rich use of color (though McCurry credits Cartier-Bresson as a substantial influence). Yet, as suggested above, Cartier-Bresson’s compositional choices seem somehow astutely attuned to the pending existential and semiotic sea change from colonial to post-colonial society in India and the world. Beyond those already mentioned, subjects skew to laborers, merchants, and diverse localized communities, from marginalized and isolated to dynastic hold-overs, with intermittent ritual and secular pomp—humanistic, with little spectacle. Most cross the pictorial threshold at eye level. No snake charmers. Only one de-populated though not decrepit architectural ruin (untitled, 1966; a Mughal palace building at Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh).
Images capturing class and ethnic diversity among crowds caravanning and converging along Ghandi’s funeral trail further underscore this reading. Then again, the most intimate of the Ghandi post-mortem scenes and the biblically-proportioned gatherings punctuated with tree-top-perched onlookers overwhelm in the instant without deliberation, as Cartier-Bresson intended.
[i] As in Teja Cole, “On Photography: A Too-Perfect Picture,” New York Times, March 30, 2016; at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/magazine/a-too-perfect-picture.html?_r=0.
Jody B. Cutler, a New York-based art historian, writes about diverse modern and contemporary visual culture and currently teaches art studies courses at St. John’s University.