In the early twentieth century, the invention of the hand-held camera made it possible to capture candid moments. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a pioneer of this photographic genre, defined his body of work as, “images à la sauvette,” literally meaning “images taken on the run,” and translated to “the decisive moment” when his book of the same name was published in English. Subjects that eluded the slow and cumbersome photographic processes of the nineteenth century—motorbikes zipping down Parisian boulevards, vagrants roaming the city, prostitutes socializing with musicians in dim cabarets—were fixed on film for the first time by Cartier-Bresson and others experimenting with the 35mm format.
At the centenary of Cartier-Bresson’s birth, the Art Institute of Chicago appropriately honors him by presenting a “snapshot” of Paris as he experienced it between the World Wars. David Travis, in his last curatorial role at the AIC, contextualizes Cartier-Bresson’s work with the photographs, prints, drawings and paintings of his contemporaries, including his teacher, André Lhote, photographers Kertész and Brassaï, and painters di Chirico, Dalí, Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse.
The exhibition opens by pairing Cartier-Bresson’s “Seville” (1932-3) with di Chirico’s “The Philosopher’s Conquest” (1914). Though it seems odd to compare the “father of photojournalism” to a Surrealist painter, the striking similitude of these images—both feature ominous shadows and claustrophobic architectures—probes us to consider the artists’ connection. The young Cartier-Bresson frequented cafés where the Surrealists gathered and surely internalized parts of their philosophy. Surrealist artists found liberation in spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness juxtapositions. Cartier-Bresson, photographing events as they unfolded, was similarly energized by the absurd beauty of the unpredictable. (Antonia Pocock)
Through January 4, 2009 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan.