Monday, August 30, 2010

Photographing America, 1929-1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans

Several weeks ago, Bonnie and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the photographic exhibit Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. No special tickets were needed for the exhibit, which we founded only lightly attended on the day that we were there. That worked well for us as we spent an hour and a half or longer looking at the black-and-white images that retold much of what happened around the world between 1930 and 1970. Cartier-Bresson took his camera to many of the world's hot spots, witnessing the Communist Revolution in China, Ghandi's funeral march, and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. He also took scores of now famous portraits of prominent people. There were hundreds of images on the exhibit walls and many original copies of Look, Life, Paris Match, and other international photo-magazines in display cases. It is a great collection that can be viewed through October 3, 2010.

Wanting to see more by the photographer, I checked out Photographing America, 1929-1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. In the introduction, Agnes Sire explains how in 1929, Evans spent eight months touring the United States with the goal of photographing the state of the nation. Some of his photographs from this trip went into his influential book American Photographs (1938). In 1946, Cartier-Bresson set out to do much the same thing. While he took many great photographs, especially in New Orleans and Chicago, the book deal fell through and many images were never published until now. In an essay "A Dialogue?", critic Jean-Francois Chevrier then explains the friendly relationship and similar sense of purpose that the photographers shared. The text gets a little dry. Readers more interested in seeing the photos should read just a little and then skip to the plates beginning on page 51.

While the editors mix photos from both photographers' trips to show artistic similarities and differences, it is perfectly acceptable to look at the pictures just to get a sense of American history or just because you like pictures. Both men were sympathetic to the poor and oppressed, so their vision may not match the memories of some people who grew up in the time. Particularly shocking is how one Mississippi used car dealer used lynching as a theme in a sales campaign. Photographing America, 1929-1947 does not make you long for the old days. Evans and Cartier-Bresson were realists uncovering rifts in the social fabric. No history reader should miss this book.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri and Walker Evans. Photographing America, 1929-1947. Thames & Hudson, 2009. ISBN 9780500543702.

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