Jocks talk about being "in the zone," where every putt drops, every three-pointer swishes--they've got a "hot hand," as crapshooters say, and they can't lose for winning. Maybe everybody gets these streaks: Car salesmen will tell you that the salesman most apt to sell the next car is the one who sold the last car--he's in that no-money-down, hot-hand zone where Zen archers are supposed to be all the time.

Or Henri Cartier-Bresson, the 91-year-old hot hand who has 70 portraits on view at the National Portrait Gallery.

His photography is the art of the zone. Photography is an athletic endeavor, as it happens, demanding animal reflexes and instantaneous intuition, especially when you're playing the 35mm available-light game, bridging art and journalism, toe-dancing around the world with a Leica M3 tucked under your elbow, waiting for what Cartier-Bresson famously called "the decisive moment."

As a young man, the son of a rich businessman in Normandy, he consorted with surrealists and other rebels against bourgeois reality as we'd known it. What he took away from them was a belief in intuition and the wisdom of instant action.

In an introduction to one of his many picture collections, he wrote: "It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe--even if the subject is still life. A velvet hand, a hawk's eye--these we should all have. It's not good jostling or elbowing. And no photographs taken with the aid of flash light either, if only out of respect for the actual light. . . . Of all the means of expressions, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face?"

Here are 70 expressions on 70 faces, most of them famous:

William Faulkner, full of "furious immortality," to use his words, stares out the right side of a famous portrait, while two rat terriers (Faulkner wrote about them as "fyce dogs") stare to the left with a similar alacrity. One of those terriers is stretching, and the stretch gives the picture a flexed quality, a hint of impatience or arrogance, maybe. Behind them all a mud puddle, some flowers, a sun-spotted lawn, a clapboard house drift off into a day like a million other days.

Edith Piaf, who rallied the sick at heart with her anthems of sadness and defiance ("No, I Regret Nothing"), stands in checked jacket with blouse spread over her collar in the style of 1946. She was the daughter of a prostitute and a circus contortionist, a child of the streets. In other photographs she sometimes exhibits a drastic, vulnerable Gallic record-album face. Here, she seems to have surrendered her public demeanor to reveal an awareness of simple mortality, of the terrible truth that life is a more ordinary business than we like to think. An American master of the zone, Roy DeCarava, once took a picture of Billie Holiday that did the same thing this one does--tell you where her music came from, a squalor of cruelty and hope.

Somebody once said that Alfred Stieglitz controlled not only every picture he ever took but also every picture ever taken of him. Here, though, in 1946, the year of Stieglitz's death, Cartier-Bresson discovered an old man whose face seems to tote his magnificent and patriarchal chin the way his chest might have borne medals from forgotten wars. He's slouched on his bed, cleaning his glasses, with the look of a man who knows exactly how much good greatness does you, though there's no way he could explain to you the sad triumph of it all.

Walker Evans once said that he stayed away from photographing the famous because their faces were "cliches." He also said that he didn't think portraits revealed character. He may have been right. For one thing, character is motion, a series of decisions--unphotographable.

Fine. The greater joy of these Cartier-Bressons is neither the fame of the subjects nor the illusion that he has bared their souls. What he shows is faces changing, crossing thresholds of emotion. He arouses in you the piquancy of recognition, the sense that you've seen something important, something that has the small sharpness of a memory that otherwise seems pointless. It's as if you're seeing through Cartier-Bresson's eyes or he's seeing through yours--a comfortable camaraderie either way.

When Cartier-Bresson photographed him in 1961, Arthur Miller was author of "Death of a Salesman" and half of a doomed marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He had created an American myth, and then become part of one with Marilyn. This picture shows us a sad, suspicious, aloof and exhausted man. Knowing what we know about him, we can see the model of hubris, of someone who'd gone too far.

Without that knowledge we see an unhappy man, certainly, with his face, hand and sweater lit by diagonal stripes of sunlight from a window. Diagonals make strong pictures. They're like stripes on the banner of early 20th-century modernism--Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," the Russian constructivists and so on. Cartier-Bresson doesn't use them much as he might, though. It's almost as if he's decided they're too easy and obvious. So in the context of this show, they stand out--they have the emphatic quality of italic type, and make you feel that something is being insisted upon. A presence? An absence?

Cartier-Bresson gives you art, impact and reality in these portraits whether you know the subjects or not. Some of them you might not: Louis Aragon, Barbara Hepworth, Martine Franck, Robert Flaherty placed in calm temples of verticals and horizontals--table tops, doorways, wall and ceiling edges. The compositions tend toward the classical. They're lyrical and reassuring. Even the diagonals don't so much add force to the composition as guide your eye to the face in question: Albert Camus is nearly skewered like St. Sebastian with the casual angles of his coat collar, the cigarette in his mouth and the blurred lines in the background.

It's these compositions that are the forgotten miracles of Cartier-Bresson's decisive moments. He captures a face moving inside the happy Grecian-urn stillness of balance and proportion. He does it in a sixtieth of a second. Then he prints the picture full-frame, no cropping--like an infinite series of instant replays of the moment. He makes it all look so easy, which is to say there's a sort of perfection here, the perfection that 20th-century artists and writers have sought in the notion of epiphany, the whole truth in an instant.

It's the truth of the ordinary world.

Everyone looks normal, like the sort of people you might encounter on any given day, living in a world of form and completeness. Their humanity finds infinite room for expression in actual reality as we used to see it in the photojournalism magazines of Cartier-Bresson's heyday, the most famous being Life. After World War II, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and some other photographers founded the Magnum agency to supply pictures for these magazines. You could make a living doing nothing else, back then.

The only freak on view is the poet and traitor Ezra Pound, a literary fan-dancer whose work continues to enthrall aging audiences at the burlesque house of high culture. He smolders in light and shadow, a freak of evil, the only figure here that the photographer might be said to have judged.

Cartier-Bresson believed in reality. He still does, to judge from the drawings he's been doing in recent years. He believed in reality with a good faith that warms these portraits--a faith we've spent decades deconstructing into subtexts of victimization, neurosis, mutation, monstrosity, deviation, solipsism, narcissism. Our artists nowadays tend to reveal reality as a collection of extremes whose shock value makes us mistake the authenticity of our alarm for the reality of their existence.

Now, the frauds of consumerism, politics, rage-as-virtue, niche marketing, arcane philosophy and esoteric literary criticism have made "reality" something you put in quote marks. Something good is supposed to come out of all this. While we wait, there are the comforts of Cartier-Bresson.


The portraits in "Tete a Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson," selected by the artist from work made over six decades, are on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 9, when the building is scheduled to be closed for renovations.

The gallery, at Eighth and F streets NW, is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Dec. 25. Admission is free.