06/16/2010 05:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Henri Cartier-Bresson Exhibit Shows He Was to Photography What Impressionism Was to Art

If you were to ask our eight-year-old where she spends her weekends, her current answer would be the Museum of Modern Art. And not because she's a mini-esthete with beret and attitude -- this season MOMA simply packs more fun in a single building than any other venue in Manhattan.

She went to the Tim Burton exhibit four times, dragging friends with her and acting as their tour guide. (Universal favorite: a drawing titled "Never shoot a constipated poodle.")

The wall-sized animations at the William Kentridge exhibit amused her for hours.

Just added to the list: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century -- closing June 28 -- a massive show of such range and vision that my wife was in tears at its end, and the kid came home and took out her camera. If you can't see it in New York, the Cartier-Bresson exhibit moves on to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 24 to October 3); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (October 30 to January 30); and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 19 to May 15).

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was to photography what the Impressionists were to painting. Those breakthrough artists grasped that the latest innovation in technology -- pre-mixed paints, packaged in tubes -- allowed them to go outside their studios and chronicle the life they found there. In much the same way, Cartier-Bresson rejected the heavy studio-based camera, covered the shiny lens of a lightweight Leica with black tape so his subjects would be less inclined to notice him, and took to the streets.

What he invented there was, essentially, photojournalism.

He shot and shot and shot some more, looking for "the decisive moment" that revealed its subject and maybe much more. When he found it, he turned his film over to the lab -- he had no interest in printing, less in cropping.

The show includes his revealing portraits of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound and Giacometti. But the decisive moment did not necessarily mean photographing personages and celebrities. In 1937, he was assigned to shoot the coronation of King George VI. He took not a single shot of the king. His subjects? The king's subjects, who filled the streets to cheer their new monarch.

Cartier-Bresson's photographs of civilians are body blows. Look at the picture on the cover of Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century -- a mother-and-son reunion at the end of World War II. Kids playing games amidst rubble. The denunciation of a woman accused of collaborating with the Germans. Mourners during the Algerian conflict.

For 30 years, Cartier-Bresson was everywhere. In Shanghai, during a run on the banks. In India, to take some of the last pictures of Gandhi -- and, from close-up, his funeral pyre.

What especially dazzles is the clarity of his images. Women on a hilltop in Pakistan in 1949 hold their hands in prayer, their feet echoing the line of the distant mountains. A bicyclist makes a turn at the bottom of a curving staircase. A man slips over a puddle, his image reflected in the water.

Simple stuff. An eight-year-old can grasp the ideas and be excited by them. And adults can have their visual palettes refreshed, the better to see, as Cartier-Bresson did, "eternity in an instant."

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