Henri Cartier-Bresson in India.
Cartier-Bresson's extended travels drew from a broadening European interest in Asia following the Second World War. His initial stay in India--the first of five extended trips to the subcontinent--became pivotal in his career when he travelled to Delhi in January 1948 to meet and photograph India's great leader Mahatma Gandhi during his final fast. Their exchange was one of Gandhi's last meetings before his assassination at the hands of a Hindu nationalist on January 30 of that year. The resulting photos of Gandhi's last day of life and the events surrounding his funeral helped catapult Cartier-Bresson to international fame when they were published in life, eclipsing those of the American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White who was there officially representing the magazine.
As revealed by extensive letters to friends, family and Magnum colleagues, in this period Cartier-Bresson also developed longstanding friendships with some of India's key artistic figures, including filmmaker Satyajit Ray and artist Jamini Roy, both in Calcutta, and soon-to-be art dealer Kekoo Gandhy in Bombay. These relationships grounded the photographer culturally, and also occasionally aided him with practical support such as arranging transportation and having the captions for his photos typed, at Magnum's behest.
Cartier-Bresson is best known for a style of humanist street photography that reveals a precise but sensitive geometry framed around a key instant, which he famously termed the "decisive moment". By the time of his first trip to India, Cartier-Bresson had moved towards a photojournalistic as opposed to formal approach. Indeed his 1952 book The Decisive Moment is divided into two chronological sections--pre- and post-1947--that show this shift. His photographs from India can be characterized as of two types: political/historical reportages and images of everyday life, revealing somewhat different approaches to image composition. In his photographs of historical events, often shot as stories commissioned by magazines through Magnum, Cartier-Bresson develops his narrative through multiple images and privileges immediacy and moments of public importance. He avoids any hint of orientalism and sensationalizing his subjects, and is careful to shoot from eye level and at close range to create a feeling of intimacy even in crowded public events.
Cartier-Bresson's street-style photographs, on the other hand, are often layered, symbolic and autonomous, revealing his worldview through a single frame. Study of his contact sheets shows that he did not shoot much, often taking only three or four photos from a few moments--sometimes split-seconds apart--to find the exact composition he sought. Both bodies of his work are almost always figural and often social. These approaches occasionally overlap, as in his image of a Muslim refugee train from Delhi to Lahore (1947). In this photo, a group of refugees displaced by partition pictured on a moving train show the grave plight of that political transformation, while appearing almost sculptural through the drapery of their blankets and garments.
In the present selection of ten images, Cartier-Bresson's photojournalistic approach is represented with a suite of four photographs from the story of events surrounding Gandhi's last days and his funeral, while the remaining six photos are drawn from multiple trips to India between 1947 and 1986. Continuities abound throughout this set and the broader frame of Cartier-Bresson's work in India, including his extraordinary ability to give life to textile. The selection partially overlaps with a set of 69 images chosen for an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson's India work, held this year at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, which also sought a balance of reportage and street photographs. (1) While this brief introduction and concise portfolio cannot cover many of the strains of Cartier-Bresson's deep engagement with India, it seeks to capture the spirit and sensibility of the photographer's perspective developed in and beyond the subcontinent.
All images [c] Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.
(1) Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame curated by Beth Citron, Rubin Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and Magnum Photos, April 21-September 4, 2017.
PORTFOLIO SELECTED AND INTRODUCED BY BETH CITRON
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
Caption: 1. An astrologer's shop in Parel, the millworkers' quarter in Bombay, 1947.
Caption: 2. Gandhi's last fast, Delhi, 1948.
Caption: 3. Crowds wait to pay their last respects as Gandhi's funeral cortege approaches the cremation ground, Delhi, 1948.
Caption: 4. Gandhi's secretary watches the first flames of the funeral pyre, while Gandhi's doctor tries to quieten the crowd, Delhi, 1948.
Caption: 5. Crowds fight to touch the train taking Gandhi's ashes to the River Ganges, Delhi, 1948.
Caption: 6. Drying saris at the Red Fort, Delhi, 1966.
Caption: 7. Drying dyed cloth in a dry riverbed, Ahmedabad, 1986.
Caption: 8. Friday prayers at the Hazrat Bal Mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir, 1948.
Caption: 9. Old city of Delhi, 1966.
Caption: 10. Muslim refugee train from Delhi to Lahore, Pakistan, passing through Kuinkshaha station, 1947.