"Te^te a Te^te: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson" is at the National Portrait Gallery. A Weekend article yesterday incorrectly reported the exhibit's location. (Published 10/30/1999)
IT IS FITTING, if somewhat bittersweet, that the last major photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a monumental celebration of the human face by Henri Cartier-Bresson, opening Friday.
Fitting, too, because this work can be compared with that of Cartier-Bresson's contemporary, the Hungarian-born photographer Brassai (Gyula Halasz) (1899-1984), whose retrospective of vintage prints is now on display at the National Gallery of Art.
To be sure, the Portrait Gallery is not going away; it merely is joining its sister institution, the National Museum of American Art, in a long-overdue overhaul that will last three years. Still, if you're going to shut down, even temporarily, what better way to do it than with a farewell offering from arguably the greatest photojournalist of all time?
For those of us who make pictures, the work of these two great shooters is instructive because each worked so differently to record the world around him. Brassai, born in 1899 in the Hungarian city of Brasso (hence his nom de guerre), came to love Paris in the years between the World Wars and recorded the night life of the city with a studied formality. Working with bulky, large-format cameras, he eschewed the new 35mm camera -- which Cartier-Bresson, by contrast, embraced. Unlike Cartier-Bresson, who preferred always to work by available light, Brassai not only used a large, tripod-mounted camera, but often lit his scenes with powerful flashguns, the light raking across his subjects' bodies and faces. (Cartier-Bresson once huffed that using flash was "impolite, like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand.")
Finally, the most telling difference: Brassai had no qualms about staging pictures, though, in fairness, he often would wait until his subjects forgot about his presence. Cartier-Bresson made his reputation as the master of the "decisive moment," that instant when all elements of gesture, composition and lighting come together to create a transcendent image -- a great photograph -- then disappear, never to be re-created.
In viewing both these shows, I reinforced my conviction that where Cartier-Bresson's genius was in capturing people in telling poses, Brassai's mastery was in providing a sense of place -- especially of his beloved Paris. To be sure, a handful of Brassai's portraits are wonderful -- some of these, like his portrait of a chesty prostitute staring intently into Brassai's lens during a game of snooker, have become icons. But, on balance, what moves me about Brassai is his genius in capturing the nocturnal urban landscape, not his ability to record faces.
It is a genius that demands a tripod and a big negative. And perhaps it says something that, of the 113 images in the National Gallery's elegantly hung show, I was most smitten by the luminous study of Parisian paving stones that Brassai himself chose for the cover of his 1933 book, "Paris at Night."
To a location portraitist and documentarian like myself, Cartier-Bresson's photographs, especially the 70 portraits that the 91-year-old personally selected for his first major exhibition in Washington, are stunning not just for their content but for their technique.
Almost without exception, every image in the exhibition is superb, though his photographs of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary, and of the Dalai Lama are perhaps the weakest of the lot.
But, Lord, what a lot!
Come to this show as if to a seminar. Study each image and see how the photographer caught the perfect expression, the perfect cast of the hand, the perfect composition. (Admire, too, the beauty of the new 16-x-20 prints, made under Cartier-Bresson's watchful eye in Paris especially for this show.)
Certainly, Cartier-Bresson possessed a measure of genius, but he also kept on working, like a superb athlete whose muscle memory allows for the effortless repetition of great and difficult actions. The eye, after all, is a muscle, too, and the most recent image in this show, of painter Lucien Freud, was made in 1997, when Cartier-Bresson was 89.
For me, Cartier-Bresson's 1947 portrait of the author William Faulkner defines what it means to capture the decisive moment. Faulkner, the chronicler of the tortured modern South, is turned, diffidently perhaps, from the photographer, his keen eye cloaked in afternoon shadow. Faulkner clutches at his elbow, stiffly holding out his right arm, in what, by itself, would be a fine portrait. But, at that precise moment, one of the author's Jack Russell terriers, on the ground beside him, stretches, and the animal's back creates a line exactly paralleling that of Faulkner's arm. The visual tension is exquisite, and Cartier-Bresson creates -- once more -- a superb image, with the casual grace of Derek Jeter gloving a hot grounder.
[Note: What promises to be an intriguing panel discussion on the current state of documentary photography will take place Saturday in the Great Hall of the Portrait Gallery from 2 to 5. Scheduled panelists include renowned photographers Bruce Davidson and Inge Morath, photojournalists Nancy Andrews and David Burnett, as well as Cartier-Bresson scholar Claude Cookman. Free. To reserve a seat call 202/357-2920, Ext. 4.]
TE^TE A TE^TE: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson -- Through Jan. 9.
BRASSAI: THE EYE OF PARIS -- Through Jan. 16, 2000.
Both at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial). 202/737-4215 (TDD: 202/842-6176). Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, Sunday from 11 to 6. Free admission. Web site: www.nga.gov.