Anytime we have an opportunity to view photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson it’s a real treat, but those now at Harper’s Books are a double treat: rare vintage prints from the 1950s and 1960s originally included in Cartier-Bresson’s first major 1966 Japanese exhibit in Tokyo. While most people can’t help but recall the photographer’s iconic image of an old man sitting beside an amorous couple, the current show features different kinds of relationships among individuals from around the globe.
Most of the various figures do not seem to be engaged with one another, just like the old man in that Parisian park who exists in his own world. Yet, some photographs evoke an opposing set of dynamics: groups of people congregate, united for a single goal. There are other differences in this intriguing series: the presence of both long shots and medium shots; diverse directions that the figures take.
First, the non-engagement of Cartier-Bresson’s subjects. Consider “Tokyo,” a gathering for a funeral where the mourners are looking in different directions, each in his/her own sphere. Separation is also a theme in “Rome,” where a man stands alone in a window; single non-human objects take up spaces in other parts of the window. A third example is “Texas,” where two young boys stand alone, separated in space by pictures of people.
Conversely, there are photographs by Cartier-Bresson showing individuals in groups attending to the same activity or event. “Funeral of the Charonne Victims” conveys a sense of solidarity and purpose. So, too, does “Village Ladies Listening to French President Charles de Gaulle, Near Aubenas, France.” The women are standing on the steps, arms crossed, giving intense attention to de Gaulle, whom we do not see.
Cartier-Bresson juxtaposes long and close-up shots for arresting effects as well. Consider the panoramic views of “Eton,” when three figures walk across a city square. The medium shot of the mourners in “Tokyo” allows us to become part of the scene in “Tokyo” and feel the grief. Another opposition concerns the various directions that people take, like two men in the “Berlin Wall.” One is a soldier, one a wounded individual. Do these figures represent the different characteristics of both sides of the Berlin Wall? “Prizren, Yugoslavia” is another photo that communicates three men taking different paths on a small street.
Cartier-Bresson’s lack of engagement between people reminds this critic of signature paintings by Eric Fischl where figures do not even look at each other. Who would have ever imagined this similarity between Cartier-Bresson and Fischl?
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s exhibit will be on view at Harper’s Books in East Hampton (87 Newtown Lane) until July 7, 2013. Call 631-324-1131 for information, or visit harpersbooks.com.