Unseen Cartier-Bresson

A photo album sheds new light on a legendary exhibition.

One of the storied photography exhibitions of the 20th century occurred in 1947 in New York, when the Museum of Modern Art began preparing a posthumous show for Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The French photographer had been captured by Nazis in 1940, and he had spent 35 months in various prisoner-of-war camps. After two unsuccessful attempts at escape, he finally succeeded. In 1943, he dug up the Leica he had buried on a farm near Vosges and began taking pictures again.

By the end of the war, however, rumors reached America that Cartier-Bresson had been killed. MoMA's photography curator, Beaumont Newhall, went to work on a major show. Then, in 1946, it was learned that he was still alive. Cartier-Bresson decided to come to America to work on the exhibition -- a show that helped to establish him as a major figure in photography and art. And that, until now, was the tale of the remarkable event.

Another chapter is being written this fall, however, with the unveiling of an ornate leather photo album that has been culled from the archive of Cartier-Bresson, who died in 2004 at age 95. The album, housed at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, contains 345 images printed by HCB himself to prepare for the MoMA show. Some of the images are among his most famous. Others are "outtakes" of well-known images. Most of the images in the album have never been seen before.

"The album represents a major contribution to our understanding of Cartier-Bresson during this period," says Agnès Sire, director of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. The organization has been working with German publisher Gerhard Steidl to produce a facsimile album. There will also be an exhibition of the original album and photographs at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation from Sept. 21 to Dec. 22.

The Scrap Book that Cartier-Bresson made to prepare for his famous 1947 exhibition in New York included prints he made of images that would later become famous, as well as outtakes and largely unknown photographs. An example is a page, shown above right, with his most famous image of Henri Matisse made in Vence, France, in 1944. His other takes are included. The page below right includes images of artists Pierre Bonnard, made in his home in Le Cannet in 1944, and Georges Rouault, Paris, 1944.

The original album, approximately 11.8x15.7 inches, lay "asleep" in the Cartier-Bresson's archive until 1992, when the photographer himself noticed that the scrapbook's paper pages were deteriorating. Working with an assistant, he began removing the prints from the pages, until his wife, Martine Franck, convinced him to stop. At that point, only 13 pages remained untouched. The Foundation will display the isolated images in a chronological layout, as HCB did in 1947.

ADVERTISEMENT