’Exposed’ & Henri Cartier-Bresson shows at SFMOMA

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Sunday November 7, 2010
Share this Post:
Press preview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Press preview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Two wonderful new photography shows opened at SFMOMA last week: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, a retrospective of the 60-year, prolific career of the greatest photographer of the 20th century, and the first major exhibition since his death in 2004; and Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870, a novel, exciting journey into the forbidden, an exploration of the voyeuristic properties of the camera and its nasty aptitude for invading our privacy. What privacy, you ask?

Both exhibitions cover a lot of ground and, alone or together, will be a field day for people who love the medium, and a joyous primer for the uninitiated. Other than their opening date (Oct. 30), which they shared, there's nothing especially to link them. One could say they will divide visitors' attention, but each constitutes a seven-course meal in itself. What follows is a brief overview of each show accompanied by some observations.

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century Cartier-Bresson as a prominent figure in modern art and in photojournalism, a field he helped pioneer, is the two-pronged thrust of this sprawling show. An intrepid photographer, he traveled to remote parts of the world, bringing insight or, in some cases, the first glimpse of far-away, war-torn countries or exotic places, such as Russia or China, few had seen in the pre-television age. (It's no accident that his images are named for the far-flung locales where they were shot.)

An intellectual trained as a painter, Cartier-Bresson had an unerring instinct for the exact right moment to capture an image and an astonishing eye; in this particular regard, he has no peer. His flawless compositions were made at the instant of shooting. He shunned the darkroom and let others do his printing for him. Of the 300 prints, which the curators have laid out here in a spacious, easy-to-view manner, nearly three-quarters are from the Cartier-Bresson Foundation, and some have never been seen by the public. Photo essays for Vogue, Life and Harper's Bazaar, featured in display cases, provide context for his magazine spreads.

For Cartier-Bresson, the street offered free admission to the greatest show on earth, and it was right outside his door. A hanging buddy of the Surrealists in Paris, his early street photography from the 1930s is a kind of Surrealist theatre. His work from this period and his photographs of WWII and its aftermath are among his most compelling, and the galleries displaying them contain so many iconic, exquisite images it's difficult to single out one or two. "Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris" (1932), perhaps his most famous photograph, and "Dessau, Germany, April 1945," a frightening photo in which a woman gloats triumphantly as she fingers the Gestapo collaborator who denounced her, in front of a crowd that includes a person in striped concentration-camp garb, leave one wondering: just how did he get that picture? In the latter image, the cycle of murder, betrayal, persecution and revenge is contained in one deceptively simple photograph. On the lyrical side, the scene of a family picnicking on a riverbank in "Juvisy, France" (1938) could have inspired an Impressionist painting or a film by Jean Renoir, and in "Allee du Prado, Marseille" (1932), an elegant man in black coat and derby stands in front of a rainy path lined with bare trees.

Unlike Avedon, who was reputed to have tricked his subjects into letting their guard down, Cartier-Bresson spent time with the subjects of his portraits, often photographing them in their homes in their natural habitats. Ezra Pound with a wild mane of white hair is shot in half-shadow suggesting his duplicitous nature; Colette regards the viewer with a cool eye while her companion, Pauline, looks on; a straight-backed George Balanchine demonstrates in ballet class; appraising the photographer, Coco Chanel, whose stare could burn down a house, is dressed in her signature suit, and brandishes a cigarette like a prop; an elderly Matisse shares his studio with his doves, some caged and others roaming free; and then there's a young louche, Truman Capote, looking lean and beautiful in a T-shirt, and shot amid giant ferns like some tropical bird lost in paradise.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870 This outstanding, enjoyable survey of 200 photographs includes works by well-known photographers such as Brassai, Weegee, Lee Miller and Walker Evans, as well as those by amateurs, and images from journalists and government agencies. Organized into five sections of forbidden looking, violation is the name of the game, especially in three of them: "Voyeurism and Desire" (yes, that's a Degas on the wall), "Witnessing Violence," and "Celebrity and the Public Gaze." It's difficult to resist these exercises in transgression or fail to be magnetized by sex and violence or titillated by intrusions on the famous or not-so-famous in their private moments, like the naked amputee laying exposed and dazed on a gurney in Bill Burke's "Hopital Calmette, Phnom Penh" (1990), or fairer game like Anita Ekberg pursued by the original paparazzi, Tazio Secchiaroli.

The curators would like to distinguish voyeurism from pornography, as Robert Mapplethorpe attempted to do during the 1970s in his explorations of underground sexuality, but that may be a distinction without a difference for some. And this may mark the first time you'll see a posted warning about violent and sexual content before you enter a gallery.

Take Man Ray's former assistant, French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, who specialized in staged events that involved bondage, deviance and murder. In his ad for Charles Jourdan, a woman naked except for her shoes, her genitals covered by a discreetly placed towel, lies on a bed in a dark room as a little boy stands in the doorway and peers in. Publicly known as a painter who kept company with Andre Breton, Pierre Molinier had a side line creating sexual fantasies for the camera, seen in his "Self-Portrait" (1966), where he indulges his fetishes by wearing a corset, black fishnet mask gloves and a dildo strapped to his ankle.

While "Desire" may be subversive and thrilling, imagery of violence both captivates and horrifies. "Rennes, France, Death of a Traitor" (1944), shot by the US Army, showing a hooded man kneeling and tied to a post; "A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep, Gettysburg Pennsylvania" (1863), Alexander Gardner's essay in death on the battlefield; and Susan Meiselas' "Cuesta del Plomo" (1981), a Nicaraguan assassination site strewn with dismembered bodies, are scenes that attract as profoundly as they repel.

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870, through April 17, 2011; Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, through Jan. 30, 2011. For more info: www.sfmoma.org.