Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was one of the legendary figures in street photography. His 1952 book The Decisive Moment is often listed as one of the greatest and most influential photobooks of all time. But the book’s reputation has long been based on hearsay; despite the photography world’s clamor for this work, the book had never been reprinted until last year. Steidl, publishers of well-crafted photobooks by some of the finest contemporary artists, has created a facsimile reproduction of The Decisive Moment to the book’s original specifications, from it’s dimensions to its Henri Matisse-designed jacket. It’s a decisively beautiful object that belongs in the library of anyone who cares about photography.

In 1947, Cartier-Bresson, with photojournalist Robert Capa and others, co-founded Magnum Photos, the photographic cooperative that still exists today. Members of the collective frequently walk a line between fine art photography and photojournalism; current member Alec Soth is a good example of the gray area between art and reportage. At the time The Decisive Moment was first published, Cartier-Bresson also had an eye in both worlds. Take a look at one of his most famous photos, one that’s not in the book: a bicyclist speeds past a spiral staircase in an image that is a fairly definitive look at the nature of photography. This image is reproduced in curator Clément Chéroux’s supplementary essay, packaged printed in a large format brochure that fits snugly with the book in a deluxe slipcase.

The images that are in the book include photos that students of street photography will know well. The book’s signature photo may be an image shot in Paris in 1932. Outside a train station, a man runs across a wet street, the water underneath him reflecting his graceful leap; visible in the background is a poster advertising the ballet, its leaping graphics an absurdly perfect counterpoint to a pedestrian simply trying to navigate a wet street.

This is the kind of serendipitous image street photographers dream of, all its elements coming together in one harmonious composition. This is just one photo; but the rest of the book follows in a beautifully logical sequence, layouts bringing together human drama and well-balanced compositions, rhyming lines and curves and rich tonal range into a unified whole.

As befits a Magnum photographer, Cartier-Bresson did not train his Leica on the world simply to make art, but to tell a story. The book’s first section, with photographs made in the West between 1932 and 1947, veers between a blend of photojournalism and art, while the second section, its images made from 1947 to 1952, is a subtle shift to photojournalism, featuring less well-known images from the photographers travels throughout Asia.

Cartier-Bresson’s introductory essay may be nearly as influential as his photography. He writes of a childhood aesthetic that was perhaps conflicted: “I, like many another boy, burst into the world of photography with a Box Brownie…” Yet in the very next sentence, he notes, “Even as a child, I had a passion for painting.” As Chéroux’s essay points out, the order of his artistic passions was actually reversed in the French original, which opens with his love of painting and then goes onto the Brownie.

The Decisive Moment is not without detractors that suspect this old master’s methods are outdated. In a review of the Centre Pompidou’s 2009 retrospective of Cartier-Bresson, Gaby Wood in the London Review of Books wrote that his images are, “so coolly composed, so infernally correct that there’s nothing raw about them, and you find yourself thinking: would it not be more interesting if his moments were a little less decisive?”

Wood has a point. Photography has changed quite a bit since Cartier-Bresson first took up his camera. I attended the Cartier-Bresson retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, and wasn’t nearly as inspired as I was by the Whitney’s 2008 retrospective of photographer William Eggleston. Yet Eggleston is quoted in the supplementary essay as a fan of Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment, which suggests another reason why the Frenchman’s work is so important. Even if his own images may seem like classroom exercises, they’re the photographic equivalent of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five or the Beatles or the Velvet Underground: this is influence so primal and pervasive that anyone who cares about the art should be familiar with it. And anyone with an eye open to the past can learn from it.

The “decisive moment” is a fleeting apparition of order in a chaotic world, but Cartier-Bresson acknowledges that his way of looking isn’t the only photography. “There are many kinds. Certainly the fading snapshot carried in the back of a wallet, the glossy advertising catalogue, and the great range of things in between – are photography. I don’t attempt to define it for everyone.” Still, he strikes what may well be a universal chord when he writes of his calling: “We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” The Decisive Moment has a monumental reputation to live up to, and I was frankly skeptical that it could. But from editing and sequencing to packaging, it’s a masterpiece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Stephan Mathieu and Ekkehard Ehlers: Heroin

Originally released in 2001, these experimental electronics are as eerie and timeless as e…