Views of world history by a photography master

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Views of world history by a photography master

George Rodger, one of the founding photographers of Magnum, once said he considered giving up photography for good after finding himself, upon entering a World War II concentration camp, placing its dead bodies into photographic compositions.
But perhaps no other 20th century documentary photographer was more obsessed with a sense of geometry than Henri Cartier-Bresson, the late French photographer who founded Magnum ― a documentary photo agency ― in 1947, and was dubbed by his admirers “the eyes of the century.”
In the retrospective of the French photographer at the Hangaram Design Museum at the Seoul Arts Center, a mix of landscapes, portraits and travelogue photographs taken from around the world show some of the critical moments in world history as seen through “unworldy” eyes.
What’s particularly intriguing about the exhibit besides the giant scale of the show ― there are over 200 works ― is that Cartier-Bresson created portraits with the same sense of “topography” that was evident in his landscapes.
In a series of photographs that he called “an environmental portrait,” he treated the faces of some of the greatest minds of the 20th century ― such figures as Sartre, Gandhi and Samuel Beckett ― as a map of the body, focusing on small details that define the identity of each individual.
The artist once said of portrait photography, “You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.”
The black and white image of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, a French novelist, shot perpendicular to his maid Paulin, is one example of his dramatic portraits, filled with the psychological realism that is evident in the author’s earlier novels.
A similar tension is present in the portrait of sculptor Alberto Giacometti, who is posed in the photograph holding scraps of newspapers in his arms. Giacometti’s face, blurred with a tinge of desperation and anxiety, references the artist’s thin, ghostly sculptures of human figures, which were inspired partly by his catastrophic experience during World War II.
The use of subtle details adds a more dramatic effect in the footage documenting major political events. The image of children playing around the Berlin Wall in 1962 is a haunting symbol of the Cold War in Europe while it poignantly depicts the seriousness of everyday life in history.
Overall, it’s almost astonishing to think how a serious documentary photographer could have made as many radical experiments with news photographs as Cartier-Bresson did in his career without compromising the content.
One could only imagine the amount of concentration and discipline it would have required for the photographer to produce a single print that gives meaning to each moment while providing visual pleasure and layers of irony. That is probably one reason why the exhibit is titled after the photographer’s nickname, a “master of decisive moments,” which is also the English title of a book he published in 1952.
Indeed, a picture of of a couple lying on a flat tube in a Swiss lake, which has an almost perfect symmetry with a pair of ducks swimming on the water right in front of the couples’ feet, provides one example of the artist’s ability as a documentarist and his sensitivity as an artist.
“Photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing,” he once said. “And when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory.”


by Park Soo-mee

“Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Master of Decisive Moments” will be on view to July 17. Admission is 9,000 won for adults. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. To get to Seoul Arts Center, take subway line No. 3 to Nambu Bus Terminal station and use exit 4 or 5. A village bus runs from the station to the center. For more information call 02-379-1268.
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