x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Eye that captured a century

The remarkable impact of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is illustrated in an Emirates Palace exhibition.

ABU DHABI // Henri Cartier-Bresson's black-and-white photographs beg an explanation and tell a story at the same time. In 1962 he photographed three men with their backs to the camera as they peered into East Berlin from the West; while decades earlier it was a fishing boat in front of two couples having a picnic on the banks of the Marne. Both pictures demonstrate the late French photographer's approach to the captured moment as it related to his love for art.

"For me the camera is a sketch book," he once said. "An instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of an instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously ... it is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression." The photographs are among 160 on display at Emirates Palace hotel until March 31 as part of Europeans 1929-1991. The exhibition was organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage as part of the Emirates International Photography Festival, which is also running until the end of the month.

With a street photography style that helped to inspire modern photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson would and could not interact with most of his subjects. "If you say, 'Hello' then the picture is gone," said Agnès Sire, director of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. "You don't speak to the person; you take the picture and then you hide. You steal the picture." Ms Sire, who worked with Cartier-Bresson for 20 years and is in the capital for the launch of the exhibition, said he developed his methods in 1932 while spending a year in Ivory Coast. Although he had trained as a painter, he ended up hunting game to support himself. In Africa Cartier-Bresson also picked up the Leica 35mm camera that would capture many of his images.

In one of the most famous, a man skips across a puddle and is reflected in the water, in front of a poster for a famous dance company. The picture was taken in 1932 near the Gare St Lazare in Paris. "It cannot happen twice," said Ms Sire. Cartier-Bresson's style became known as the "decisive moment". However, it was a label foisted on him by the US publisher of his 1952 book Images à la Sauvette, or stolen images, and he despised it, said Ms Sire.

"It has been sticking to him all his life," she said. Any photographer must find a "decisive moment" before he shoots a frame, and Cartier-Bresson was no different, she said. Instead, he favoured the term "the lost moment". "Photography is always about that," she said. "Photography is to keep a moment that has vanished." Cartier-Bresson had his first exhibition in New York in 1933, and began building an international reputation working for newspapers and magazines.

When the Second World War broke out he joined the French army in the film and photo unit, but was captured in 1940 and spent three years working in German labour camps. He escaped in 1943, on his third attempt, and went underground until the end of the war. When he emerged in 1945 the Museum of Modern Art in New York, presuming him dead, was planning a posthumous show of his work, which turned into a retrospective. In 1947 he co-founded the Magnum Photos agency with Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour.

Despite his talent, for Cartier-Bresson the ever-present potential for a photograph was a continuous source of tension and angst. The American author Truman Capote, a friend, likened him to a libellule frénétique, or an agitated or frenetic dragonfly. "He was a bundle of nerves," said Ms Sire. "When you are a photographer working like he was, that means you have to capture the exact moment. You always have to be...on the hunt"

Paint and canvas, however, provided a path to relaxation. In 1968 Cartier-Bresson began to curtail his photography to focus on drawing and painting, learning about Buddhism and practising meditation, seeking and finding the calm that had eluded him behind the lens for decades. Because he lived from 1908 to 2004, and photographed for so many years, Cartier-Bresson was dubbed "the eye of the century". When he died, French newspapers proclaimed that the eye had "closed".

amcqueen@thenational.ae