Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame @Rubin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 69 black and white photographs, framed in light wood and matted, and hung against grey-green walls in a series of three rooms on the fifth floor of the museum. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1947 and 1966. The exhibit also includes 6 vitrines, housing a selection of magazine spreads, book spreads, letters, newspaper articles, a menu, the photographer’s Leica camera, and his press card. The show was curated by Beth Citron. (Installation shots below, courtesy of the Rubin Museum. Photography by David De Armas.)

Comments/Context: After Henri Cartier-Bresson helped co-found Magnum Photos in 1947, he selected Asia as his coverage area and set out on what became a series of lengthy trips to India. This single subject exhibit chronicles his repeated travels through the country, and follows along as he tracks political figures and royal princes and examines the bustling contradictions of everyday life. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can now look back and see that this period was a particularly explosive one for India, both politically and socially, with independence from Great Britain and the religious partition with Pakistan taking place in the span of just a few years. His visits to India proved to be similarly transformational for Cartier-Bresson, and the show indirectly provides elusive insights into how the famed photojournalist consistently delivered the kind of memorable pictures international publications valued most.

In many ways, what Cartier-Bresson was largely doing in India was looking for the visual stories behind the headlines, and the transitions going on in 1947-1948 had plenty of nuances to explore. He made casual images of Lord Mountbatten in his crisp naval whites, the charming Jawaharlal Nehru joking around, and the calmly strong Vallabhbhai Patel quietly working, putting faces and personalities to the names in the news. To understand the impact on the Muslims forced to relocate during the partition, he followed overcrowded refugee trains and spent time in transfer camps, making the abstract political situation real by showing us endless rows of tents in the settling dust, hanging white laundry in the baking sun, and vigorous exercising that had the improvised grace of dance. And he went to spend time with the famed Mahatma Gandhi, who had just broken his most recent fast, and followed him as he visited a Muslim shrine aided by the help of several women who propped him up by his shoulders. In these pictures, Cartier-Bresson captured Gandhi’s determination and his frailty, a great leader worn down but unbowed.

That Cartier-Bresson would be in the right place at the right time to participate in the breaking news of Gandhi’s assassination was pure chance, but he didn’t miss the opportunity to rush back to the compound and document the events as they unfolded. (An interesting side story to these images is worth noting: apparently Margaret Bourke-White was also quickly on the scene, but insisted on shooting with a flash. This offended some of the family and friends most deeply impacted by Gandhi’s death, so her access was limited, thereby giving Cartier-Bresson (who used natural light) a measure of de facto exclusivity.) His pictures sensitively capture Gandhi’s body lying covered in flowers and the gathering of mourners spilling out of the bedroom into the nearby courtyard. In the subsequent days, he was there when Nehru announced the assassination to a crowd at night, followed the masses as they filled the streets with dense humanity and overwhelmed trees to get a better view, watched as the first flame was placed on the cremation pyre, and tracked the train carrying Gandhi’s ashes as it made its way through more unprecedented throngs of people. Together, these photographs poignantly told the story of the tragedy and its impact on the Indian people, and became the lead images that showed the world what was happening.

Much more of Cartier-Bresson’s work in India didn’t fit into any urgent newsworthy narrative, but instead told smaller feature-style stories about everyday life, and this is where the photographer’s mastery of “decisive moment” composition is best observed. Farmers coming to the city with their cows become receding layers of front to back white. The craggy hand of a mother holding a malnourished baby is echoed by the spokes of a wooden wheel in the background. A woman stands behind a carved wooden screen on the second floor as a man bicycles underneath. Women spread saris out in the sun, creating abstract dark and light striations across the sand. A perfume seller is framed by painted romantic scenes. And rooftop kite flyers stare into the sky with the tiny lines of string pulled out of reach. Each picture does something sophisticated with the subject matter, turning the overlooked into the magical.

But other images feel a bit more self-consciously exotic, as if Cartier-Bresson was aiming at a certain editor or reader who wanted to experience the extraordinary marvels of India. One series of images chronicles the lives of actors and dancers, from their body contorting stretches to their paired makeup application. Another dives deep into the world of royal India, with its court culture, its diamonds from Napoleon, and its elephant fights during elaborate birthday celebrations. And additional images of pilgrims, ascetics, and religious processions feel equally seduced by the wonderful otherness of the surrounding culture – Cartier-Bresson was by definition an outsider, and his position as one is most clearly noticeable in these images.

Given Cartier-Bresson’s prolific output of imagery across his career, this exhibit does the viewer a welcome favor by narrowing down the focus – with this limited perspective, we can more closely engage with his images from India without being distracted by his other masterworks from other locales around the world. As a result, we can see Cartier-Bresson working in several distinct modes – in the intensity of an historic moment, in the systematic building up of a background narrative to an important story, and in the more casual act of wandering, where his eye could play more aggressively with patterns and structures in his compositions. In each, he proved to be a thoughtful observer, his best images from India undeniably straddling the line between news and art.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Cartier-Bresson’s prints are ubiquitous at auction, with dozens of prints available each and every season. Prices have ranged from roughly $1000 to $215000 in recent years, with obscure images and later prints at the bottom end of that range and vintage prints of the iconic images at the top.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover with Swiss binding, 24 x 28 cm, 108 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions and 14 contact sheet pages. Includes ... Read on.

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