In almost every respect, they were opposites. One worked with small cameras and tiny negatives; the other with big cameras and large negatives. One was tall and lithe and took pictures on the fly; the other was a stocky gnome of a man who took as much time as necessary setting up his heavy gear, waiting for the sun and earth to turn his way. They would have been a perfectly odd couple had they ever appeared together, but they never did. Except here, posthumously, by proxy, through an assortment of their better-known photographs.
Seeing their names together on a show invitation made little apparent sense, yet seeing their work in orderly rows on opposing walls of a gallery can be instructive, a reminder of the Eastern philosophical maxim that yin and yang are mutually definitive. Henri Cartier-Bresson understood that. Considered an enigma for most of his life until his death last August at age 95, a millionaire's son who shunned fame and lived simply, his only explanation was that his life was "shaped by Buddhism." A consummately private man, the master of the "decisive moment" offered no other clues.
Yet that may explain much about his approach, for Buddhism stresses above all the art of being "in the moment," the eternal now, and it was his life's mission to explore that ever-present slice of infinity. There must have been something to it because through his lens, commonplace events were transformed into split-second epiphanies as if the outer veneer had been stripped away to reveal the inner geometry of time and space, the schematics of experience. Take Queen Charlotte's Ball, 1959. On the surface, it's an assortment of aristocratic Brits dancing, but here Cartier-Bresson's slow shutter speed reveals a blur of bodies in motion that seems more in keeping with some sort of extraordinary natural occurrence, say, the efflorescence of emerging nebulae or the aviary rituals of exotic wild fowl in Zimbabwe. The same subjects by semi-official court photographer Cecil Beaton would have simply given us a cliched inventory of overdressed prigs. The difference is in the eye, the vision, the consciousness of the photographer.
Like any first-rank photojournalist, he was masterful in his rendering of emotions, as seen in Gestapo Informer Recognized by the Woman She Denounced. Here each of the three-dozen faces is at least as expressive as any veteran actor onstage, resulting in a tautly controlled opera of outrage, suspicion and remorse. In Canteen for Workers Constructing the Hotel Metropole, Moscow, 1954, the faces are younger and more playful, yet as exquisitely articulated as a perfectly enacted scene in a movie. It's a fleeting nexus of emotion and composition that he captured with such seemingly effortless virtuosity, a sense of timing akin to choreography. His subjects were never cliches because he saw them for the first time each and every time, and that is a talent that few will ever possess.
Like Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams was considered a leading modernist for his insistence that photographs reflect the medium of their making. He co-founded the f/64 movement dedicated to near-clinical sharpness with none of the pseudo-impressionistic fuzziness common to early 20th century "art photography." Yet his photographs of mountainous Western landscapes were ultimately romantic for the same reasons that the 19th century Hudson River School landscape paintings were seen as romantic: the overarching dramatic lucidity with which those imposing vistas were realized. If they weren't so American they'd be Wagnerian in their drama. One of his most famous vistas, Moonrise Over New Mexico, with its luminous clouds sandwiched between pristine mountains and an impossibly lucid moon, suggests a visual equivalent of Richard Strauss's hyper-dramatic Thus Spake Zarathustra, his symphonic evocation of all things cosmic. It is that cosmic light and the vast, peculiarly American sense of space that defined most of Adams' Western landscapes, and if he did indeed stick to the essentials of the photographic medium, he was not above using filters and intensive darkroom manipulation to heighten the drama. Ultimately, Adams thought like a painter, and his imagery is essentially pictorial in that sense, despite claims to the contrary. Cartier-Bresson, his photojournalistic opposite who never manipulated anything in a darkroom, eventually gave up the camera and devoted the rest of his life to drawing.
- In the moment: Henri Cartier-Bresson's Queen Charlotte's Ball, 1959, reveals a blur of bodies in motion that seems more in keeping with some sort of extraordinary natural occurrence.