Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in New York in 1946 to co-ordinate a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. He soon conceived what was to be his most ambitious project to date – a book of photographs based on a road trip across North America. The journey would force an engagement with a new land; the photography would demand a reckoning with the work of Walker Evans, probably the country’s only documentarist of equal stature.
In April 1947 Henri Cartier-Bresson teamed up with the poet and critic, John Malcolm Brinnin, to embark on a seventy-seven day road trip across the States, a journey which took them south through Washington DC and Mississippi, and west through New Mexico and LA, before returning to New York via Colorado, Chicago and Boston. Brinnin was to drive and navigate while Cartier- Bresson would determine where to stop. And Harper’s Bazaar was to fund the trip in the form of payments for incidental portraits of (often expatriate European) cultural figures they met en route, including Max Ernst, Man Ray, Jean Renoir and Igor Stravinsky. Brinnin later remembered the day of departure:
‘I made a last survey, picked Walker Evans’s book of American photographs from a shelf and placed it face up on the backseat.’
His recollection is included in Photographing America: Henri Cartier-Bresson / Walker Evans 1929-1947, a compilation of pictures from the former’s brief stay in the country, and from the latter’s American Photographs (first published to accompany his Museum of Modern Art exhibition of 1938). As Brinnin’s choice of reading matter suggests, Cartier-Bresson was engaged – at one level – in an attempt to confront, or build on, Evans’ legacy. Indeed, many years later the Magnum photographer was to write that, ‘If it had not been for the challenge of the work of Walker Evans, I don’t think I would have remained a fotographer.’ Sadly, the book of the 1947 trip was never realised, and the dummy designed by the great Alexey Brodovitch was lost.
This new volume, originally published to mark the centenary of Cartier-Bresson’s birth, explores some of the affinities and points of departure between the two photographers. For example, both Evans and Cartier-Bresson were recognised for their explicit rejection of the perceived mannerisms of pictorialist, experimental or art photography, in favour of a style associated with a directness and clarity of vision. As early as 1938 the critic Lincoln Kirstein had noted that ’The photographic eye of Walker Evans represents much that is best in photography’s past and in its American present. His eye can be called, with that of his young French colleague Cartier-Bresson, anti-graphic, or at least anti-art-photographic.’ At the same time, a distaste for the pretensions and effects of art photography was not considered incompatible with a belief in the medium’s status as art. Evans once reflected on the importance of his book and MOMA show, ‘More than I realised it established the documentary style as art.’ For his part, Cartier-Bresson remained appreciative that it was in the United States – not Europe – that he was first recognised as an ‘Artist with a Camera,’ as the New York Times put it.
This was of, course, much more than the replacement of one style of photography by another – Evans’ achievement, and perhaps the challenge it represented, was to recognise a new terrain on which to operate. His work, he said, was ‘against the style of the time, against salon photography, against beauty photography, against art photography’ and, he later added, ‘neither journalistic nor political.’ Moreover – in the ironies, ambiguities, contrasts and juxtapositions of its editing and sequencing – American Photographs suggested the possibility of a photography that appeared to be not only inimical to prevailing modes, but through its independence achieved a form of sophisticated social criticism. Evans’ readers were confronted with a succession of images of destitution and decay, fashion and faded opulence, advertising and poverty, blacks and whites. As the book’s afterword observed, this was ‘America considered in the disintegration of chaos.’ Or as Evans drily noted, ‘We do not need military battles to provide images of conflicts.’
Not surprisingly, whatever his ambitions Cartier-Bresson could not hope to eclipse the work of his predecessor. Perhaps Jean-Francois Chevrier’s essay in Photographing America has it about right in saying that he ‘waltzed in Evans’s footsteps for several weeks in 1947.’ Motifs, themes and shared interests recur across both bodies of work, but Cartier-Bresson was always inclined to give more – more context, more perspective, more movement, more humanity. Certainly more than Evans’s austere, laconic and intransigent frontality would ever permit.
– Guy Lane
Photographing America: Henri Cartier-Bresson / Walker Evans, 1929-1947
Edited by Agnes Sire and Jean-Francois Chevrier
Thames & Hudson