In a sped-up world under constant visual barrage of 24-hour cable news and quick-cut editing for movies, TV shows and trailers, one striking photograph is often worth 1,000 videos.
No one produced more striking photographs in the 20th century than French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who traveled the world to tell stories through his Leica camera.
Cartier-Bresson's special genius was his ability to recognize moments and settings, often in a flash, that promised dramatic results, from world-shaking events such as Gandhi's funeral in India to simple slices of life like a smiling French boy holding a couple of wine bottles.
“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson said in a 1957 Washington Post interview. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. … Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Cartier-Bresson, who died at 95 in 2004, literally wrote the book on the subject, The Decisive Moment, published in 1952. In the book, he writes that as a photographer he strived to recognize both the significance of an event “as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
One such decisive moment came when he observed a man about to leap over a vast puddle. The resulting iconic photo shows the subject in midleap, his outstretched body perfectly reflected in the pool of water.
“He had a sixth sense” for moments big and small, says Peter Fetterman, owner of the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. He's internationally known for his gallery's collection of classic photos from the masters and for his support for up-and-coming photographers.
“Henri was the first great 20th-century global photographer,” Fetterman says, “and he was concerned [in his photos] with such a range of human emotions, from intense political situations to a private moment between two individuals.”
Cartier-Bresson's work and his frequent assignments for Life magazine and other publications took him to Mexico, Japan, throughout Europe and the United States, to China — where he witnessed the downfall of Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang and the early rise of Mao Zedong — and the Soviet Union. He was the first Western photographer allowed into the U.S.S.R. during the early years of the Cold War, and he came away with powerful photos of ordinary people going about their daily lives.
He also photographed 20th-century giants of the arts and letters including Picasso, Matisse, Camus and Truman Capote.
Much of Cartier-Bresson's work comes together this week in New York in an exhibit from Fetterman's collection called “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Eye of the Century,” with 120 photos. The exhibit culminates with an auction on Dec. 12, which Fetterman expects will attract global bidders. He estimates that about half of the photos have never been seen, and are the result of ongoing efforts to cull the photographer's stored prints and negatives.
An exhibit overview notes that with the photos, “We move from region to region, exploring the people, places and moments Cartier-Bresson documented during his decades of photographic exploration and reportage in the 20th century.”
Fetterman, who developed a close relationship with Cartier-Bresson after meeting him and his wife, Martine, at the couple's Paris apartment in 1991, recalled going through stored works with the photographer.
“I was moved by the power of his images. Through his work I realized the real power of photography.” —Peter Fetterman on Henri Cartier-Bresson
“He would say to me, 'Peter, these are just snapshots'?” as the two of them would examine a group of photos, Fetterman recalls. “I kept mining his archives and finding these little gems” that Cartier-Bresson had set aside.
Fetterman's own decisive moment in his career as a professional collector and gallery owner came with that 1991 meeting at Cartier-Bresson's home. To this day, the address — 198 rue de Rivoli — is indelibly ingrained in his memory nearly 40 years later.
Of his early attraction to Cartier-Bresson's work, Fetterman says, “I was moved by the power of his images. Through his work I realized the real power of photography.”
He remembers being extremely nervous about that first meeting with a man who had become his hero for his wide-ranging body of work and approach to his craft. But the photographer put Fetterman at ease immediately.
“I was very taken by, A, how humbly he lived, and B, how self-effacing he was” considering his position as one of the world's pre-eminent photographers. The two men ended up spending nearly three hours together, and the apartment later became a kind of spiritual home for Fetterman, as Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, noted in an interview with Fetterman.
It was at the Paris apartment that Fetterman met many other photographers and a broad range of artists, intellectuals and professionals with a passion for the arts, especially photography, all welcomed by Cartier-Bresson and his wife.
Fetterman's collection of Cartier-Bresson's photos and his relationship with the photographer served as the foundation of his Santa Monica gallery, which he opened nearly 20 years ago.
“I never set out to build the collection in a specific way,” he told Galassi. “It just happened as I discovered and studied the work. So it was purely organic. I would fall in love with an image and figure out a way to add it, just like you discover a new piece of music or a new novel.”
Through his collecting and relationship with Cartier-Bresson, “I was handed an incredible gift,” he said.
Fetterman has used that gift to go on to build one of the country's largest inventories of classic 20th-century photography, with diverse holdings including the works of Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Willy Ronis, André Kertesz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lillian Bassman, Pentti Sammallahti, Stephen Wilkes and Jeffrey Conley.
For Fetterman, the proceeds that come from auctions like the one in New York help his gallery support the efforts of the next generation of photographers, a passion and mission for him and his gallery colleagues, and entirely in line with the spirit of Cartier-Bresson.
“It's a continuum,” he says.
HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON: THE EYE OF THE CENTURY | Phillips New York, 450 Park Ave., Manhattan | On view through Mon., Dec. 11, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 10, noon-6 p.m.| Auction: Tue., Dec. 12 | email@example.com