Trained as a painter, Cartier-Bresson began his formal photography career in France in the early 1930s. He became one of the flrst photographers to shoot in the 35mm format with a Leica camera.
His concept of the “decisive moment” defmed as “the simultaneous recognition…ofthe significance of an event as well as a precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression” set a standard for photography that influenced generations.
Using his tiny handheld camera, Cartier-Bresson developed a “street photography” style of discreetly entering a crowd to take pictures. His camera allowed for thirty-six negatives, each approximately 1 x 1 Y2 in. in size to be taken on a single loading offllm. The small negative made it possible to take many exposures in rapid succession.
Cartier-Bresson printed the entire negative, never cropping or editing the image. He prints display a rich range ofmidd1e grays with accents ofblack and white. Cartier-Bresson used the metaphor of shooting to describe his work: “approach tenderly, gently on tiptoe- even if the subject is a still life.” While traveling in Italy in 1933, Cartier-Bresson stumbled upon a beautiful still life arrangement of fruits at a market stand. He artfully captured this moment in the photograph Tivoli, Italy. Intrigued by the architecture of his surroundings decades later whitt:•touring the Greek islands, Cartier-Bresson, happened upon a path covered in deep shadow and waited for the right figure to appear. He caught a local in mid-stride, running up the back stairs in Siphnos, Greece.
Cartier-Bresson described portraiture as “the one domain which photography has won away from painting.”
In his portrait, William Faulkner, the most widely published photograph of the author, Cartier-Bresson captured the presence and stature of one of America’s most influential writers of the twentieth century.
The portrait, taken at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi home, shows the author with arms crossed over his chest staring intently to the right while his two terriers look eagerly to the left.
Two years after this photograph was taken, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The year before Cartier-Bresson took this portrait of Faulkner, he had his own portrait taken by Beaumont Newhall, an influential writer and photographer who in 1937 curated the first comprehensive retrospective of photography for the Museum of Modem Art. Ten years after that pivotal exhibition, Cartier-Bresson celebrated a career retrospective at the Museum of Modem Art and the accompanying catalog for the exhibition, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson was authored by Beaumont Newhall. These photographs fit naturally within the context of The Phillips Collection. In the 1950s, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips met Cartier-Bresson during one of the artist’s visits to the museum.
Upon Marjorie’s request, Cartier-Bresson even took a portrait of the Phillips family. In 1964, the museum hosted the loan exhibition Photographs by Cartier-Bresson which presented works from the artist’s private collection.
The Phillipses purchased five photographs from the exhibition, including several portraits of artists represented in the collection. The addition of these three important works by Cartier-Bresson and the portrait by Beaumont Newhall, enhances the Phillips’s unit of Cartier-Bresson and our holdings of modem photography.