Monday, April 19, 2010

Henri Cartier-Bresson at MOMA, part 1

I've been hitting a lot of museums lately (thank you, MOMA, for honoring my New School Faculty ID). This morning I dropped in for an hour to get a first glimpse of the Henri Cartier-Bresson show; I love him, I love Magnum, I love his Magnum-founding partner Robert Capa, and I know that I will visit this show at least a handful of other times.

When I worked at American Heritage magazine from 1993-1997, one of my favorite tasks was to do historical photo research. Editors would assign me stories, and it was my duty to find appropriate images to go with them. This was before archives were digitalized and moved into storage caves, and for me this translated into field trips away from the office. I would visit the main branch of the NYPL on 42nd Street, or the Bettmann Archives on Broadway, or the John Hay Library at Brown University to gather never before printed illustrations by H.P. Lovecraft, or even in a broom closet (literally) of the soon to be closed St. Vincent's Hospital, where I found a very early image (tin-type? daguerrotype? I can't recall) of an ambulance that took the form of a horse and buggy.

Visiting Bettmann was by and large one of the pinnacle points of my Heritage years. I'd be guided by a picture editor, usually Ronny Brenne, to rows and rows of file cabinets, each stuffed with prints, many from Magnum. On the backs of these prints were stamps which told the story of how each image had moved around: a Robert Capa would be printed in a Magnum laboratory in Paris; sent to London; sent again to be reprinted in New York, etc... all of this through the mail or by courier. (Some of his photos were actually that of his lover Gerda Taro, but that's for another day.)

So when I saw at this show a framed image of the back side of a print, not the print itself, I got sort of choked up. It was covered with pencil scrawlings by photo editors, and red and black stamps of vanished, or vanishing, agencies and publications (LIFE, MATCH, or LOOK), each told a part of the photograph's journey. Especially sensitive of the curator.

The show itself is a stunner; too vast in its scope to be absorbed in a single visit (the name itself was an early tipoff: "The Modern Century"). There are some images that I had trouble moving away from: a portrait of Colette; a mobbed train carrying the ashes of Gandhi; an especially menacing-looking banker circa 1950; and some post-WW 2 photographs of children, particularly one of five little Roman rascals sitting in a stairwell dealing cards, obviously a pack to be contended with. For now I'll let these settle before heading back for round 2.


  1. i went to the preview night of this thanks to the invitation of a donor but it was so packed that i didn't feel i got to be intimate with the prints i grew up loving. very much looking forward to returning again and again as you say.

  2. Rhode Island at Brown! AH actually sprung for a plane once!

  3. Fred! Factchecker! John Hay Library. Butler is of course at your Alma Mater. Got the B's mixed up: Brown, Butler, Brown.