Henri Cartier-Bresson at Peter Fetterman Gallery (and the Art Institute)

-Sponsored Post (underwritten by Peter Fetterman Gallery) –

Originally posted this summer, but re-posing before the exhibit closes next week. It’s a beautiful show.

The Art Institute is hosting the retrospective Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. It’s a beautiful exhibit of over 300 photographs that demonstrates his long, global and varied career. In Bresson’s youth, small, portable cameras were available for the first time, which allowed him to carry a camera with him at all times, and create the first, fine art “street photography”. He proceeded to traveled the world between the two world wars, and became the founding father of photo journalism. He died in 2004 at the age of 95, after an incredibly long and vibrant career.

After Bresson’s death, Peter Fetterman wrote an article for B&W Magazine entitled, “A Personal Tribute to Henri Cartier Bresson”. It contains portraits of the artist, (p. 1, 2, & 3) and describes Fetterman’s decision in 1989 to open an art gallery that has the the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson as its foundation. Peter Fetterman Gallery currently holds the largest private collection of Cartier-Bresson prints in the world, an inventory of almost 120 images.

The slideshow below features thirty images from the Peter Fetterman Gallery collection.

In researching this piece, Mr. Fetterman recommended I speak with David Travis, a curator of who organized and presented over 125 exhibitions of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. Travis’s first recommendation was the Charlie Rose interview (embedded below), and then he shared with me an email response he wrote in response to the question, “How did the concept of the decisive moment come about?”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Madrid, 1933. Gelatin silver print.

While part of a team of curators preparing a large exhibition and catalogue of the work of the Hungarian/American photographer André Kertész, I ask Henri one evening if he remembered the first time he had seen Kertész. He responded instantly, “Yes, yes, in the cafés on the boulevard Montparnasse, when I was in knee pants.” It was his way of saying that for him Kertész was always the master, as it was long after he was out of the French schoolboy uniform. For him Kertész was a photographer to emulate, not only in his skill at recording a scene, but in the concern and tenderness the older master brought to his subjects. Lighter and more portable hand cameras and faster film made a new kind of photograph possible, one that could select it’s own vantage point free of tripods and manipulating heavy cameras and one with a rapid frame advance mechanism for spooled film could better respond to and arrest the relentless fluidity of a scene.

Before Henri took up photography in the style we have come to know, writers began in the late 1920s to search for the vocabulary to describe these new images. Pierre MacOrlan used the term “le bon moment” (the right moment) and went on to say that this kind of photograph causes a “death” for a such a tiny fraction of a second that it becomes unnoticeable to those who underwent it. The result was an ambiguous sliver of a narrative that viewers were to complete in their own imaginations. The writer Pierre Bost named the phenomenon a “vérité éphémère” (an ephermeral truth), giving it the tinge of a metaphysical dimension.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Matisse, 1944. Gelatin silver print.

In 1952, two decades after becoming a “photographer,” Henri published his first great book of photographs and titled it “L’mage a la sauvette.” Sauvette is a particular French word that we only approximate in English. To sell something “a la sauvette” is to hawk something on the street with one eye looking out for the police. Thus, Henri acted like a thief, which is exactly the term Irving Penn used, rather lovingly, when describing to me how Henri had surreptitiously made a portrait of his brother, Arthur Penn, and himself one afternoon in the fashion photographer’s apartment. But it was no secret that Henri was there to make a portrait of the two highly talented brothers, it was an assignment from Vogue, I believe. But true to form, Henri took the portrait secretly before a time of tea and conversation, long before Irving asked how he would like them to pose for him. So in Henri’s mind this particular kind of image was a picture composed and taken on the run, by stealth, candidly, almost always as if the photographer were the hunted rather than the hunter. Of course, the term “decisive moment” makes for a better English title, as it is a ready handle for a more complicate idea. It is the phrase that the publishers Simon and Schuster used in their publication. And although the French-language publisher, Verve, used “L’image a la sauvette,” it is the English term that became well known. In both editions, the insightful text Henri wrote as an introduction is prefaced by a quote from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz; “Il n’y rien en ce monde qui n’ait moment decisive,” which I like to translate to mean “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” “ But even with the Cardinal’s quote, one does well to remember that this rather overly photographic term overshadows Henri’s core concern to “catch life in the act of living,” yet another phrase that would also make for a complicated title.

Why was the decisive moment so influential with other photographers?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chicago, 1947. Gelatin silver print.

I think it was simply another photographic element with which photographers could use to help form their pictures. The basic elements of making a “photographic” picture were a sense of space or object, a sense of light, and a sense of time. Most viewers are satisfied most easily with photographs in that order of importance. Once Henri reversed that order by using timing to bring the element of time into view, photographs became exciting again.