Henri Cartier Bresson: Paris – Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts

HCB 1-0530

August 6th  2016

To link with the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts significant exhibition Alberto Giacometti – A  Line Through Time, The Sainsbury Centre were also displaying 83 images of Paris made by Cartier Bresson between 1929 and 1985. I also visits the Giacometti exhibition and my brief review can be found here. The exhibition was organised by Magnum Photos and the Foundation Henri Cartier- Bresson.

Although I was familiar with Cartier Bresson’s work this was a a rare opportunity to see a range of work displayed together and all printed with traditional silver gelatin processes. To add to my interest, the beautiful traditional prints had been made under the supervision iof cartier Breton himself,  so unlike other reproductions of images by the artist, these I assumed must approximate to the product that cartier Bressson visualised himself for the final image.


The 83 monochrome  images, printed to about 20×16 were all displayed in a large well lit but not too bright gallery space. All were very simply but classically mounted and framed. There was a clear consistency  to the presentation of the work that to my eye allowed me to see past the display medium and really focus on the work itself.

I was also really struck by the very sharp consistency of the tonal range in the prints, this was fine art monochrome printing at its best.

The images were all arranged chronologically and there was a clear sense of development, in particular the artists shift to using 35mm which liberated him from the constraints of the earlier larger format cameras.

I am trying hard not to think about the photography involved and shift my thought process to the finished images and see through and past  the process. I found this very hard in the exhibition because I am a fan of 35mm film as a useable format and the  engaging images in the collection present such a strong argument about the power and efficacy of 35mm film in the hand s of a master!

I was alo really delighted to gaze upon a Cartier Breton supervised print of ‘Behind the Gare Saint Lazare’. I had looked at this work many times in books and of course had deconstructed it as part of my studies on the OCA course -Expressing Your Vision, my blog entry about it can be found here. I have to say the 20×16 in the frame looked really quite different to the versions in books and on the web. Far more subtle detail and tonal range.

The collection contained a rich mix  of images ranging from  street scenes,  people , couples, humour and well well observed moments of human interaction, joy and sadness. Cartier Bressons eye for the subject but also the tight and structured compositions that is a hallmark of his work. It is hard to describe the sense of completeness that I felt in seeing  his work arranged in a very well curated collection. The exhibition catalogue alerted me that some of the images in the collection had never before been displaced, i was not surpsperibd by this given there were many images I had never seen before even after looking at his work in books for 30 years.


© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos.

Of all the images in the collection it was the groups of people in his work that really drew me in . He must have made himself near invisible to have made some of these images given his proximity to make the work, yet the impression that he had not changed the scene by his close presence.


© Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos.

What also took my by surprise was that the later images (late 1970’s to early 80’s ) did seem less strong and less focussed on individuals and more about the composition of a scene. i am not suggesting the images were weak as photographs, more that his attention and perhaps even inters had waned. This fits with things that i read suggesting in later life he lost some of his interest in photography and was far more interest in painting.

All in all this was a fantastic show that afford me the opportunity to look at Cartier Bressons work as he had intended, this gave insights into the impression he was attempting to create with his work that simply can not be seen in the same prints in books.

I left the gallery with a real enthusiasm to make more work of people in the streets, it was an object lesson in being inspired by an artist to go away and make work, tempered with thought that i need to try and create ab original take on his approach and not merely to go and try and replicate it. Either options still seems a real challenge!!!






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