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24.7.09

Photographing America: Henri Cartier-Bresson / Walker Evans

The Guardian reviews a photographic retrospective of American life
Henri Cartier-Bresson's Harlem (1947). Photograph: Magnum Photos
An excerpt from a review of Photographing America, published on The Guardian's website on Monday:
In 2001, Henri Cartier-Bresson reflected on the long moment in the early 1940s when he had briefly considered turning from photography to film-making. "If it had not been for the challenge of the work of Walker Evans," he wrote, "I don't think I would have remained a photographer."

It's this quote that provides the epigraph for Photographing America 1929-1947, a fascinating book that focuses on these two masters of 20th-century photography. Intriguingly, Evans's photographs span the years of the book's title, while Cartier-Bresson's were all taken between the spring of 1946 and the summer of 1947. It is tempting, if not altogether true, to say that Evans is essentially an American photographer (the American photographer?) while Cartier-Bresson is essentially a European one (the European one?) who, for a brief but illuminating period, trained his outsider's eye on America.

Cartier-Bresson arrived in America from the newly liberated France in May 1946 to prepare for his first big American exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That show did not actually open until the following February because the curators, believing that Cartier-Bresson had been killed by the Nazis while attempting to escape from a prison camp, were actually planning a posthumous retrospective when he showed up on their doorstep.

In the interim, Cartier-Bresson took two working road trips to the American Deep South. On the first, undertaken just after he arrived in America, he was accompanied by Truman Capote for Fortune magazine, who would later memorably describe the French photographer "dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas winging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye … clicking away with a joyous intensity, a religious absorption". Unconsciously or otherwise, Cartier-Bresson was following in the footsteps of Walker Evans, who had roamed the American south back in the summer of 1936, when he was on assignment for Fortune with the journalist James Agee. Their story of the plight of three tenant farming families in Alabama during the Great Depression was rejected by Fortune – they thought it too bleak – but, in 1941, in extended form, it became the acclaimed book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans's photographs have since become iconic images of the time. [Read more]

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