Henri Cartier Bresson/Paul Strand, Mexique, 1932-1934
“One could say that [Paul Strand] was the antithesis to Henri Cartier Bresson,” wrote John Berger in 1980′s About Looking. The two photographers both worked in Mexico in the early 1930s and both went to New York in 1935, where they became involved in the same cinematic groups. While their paths at this point were very similar, the outcomes were very different.
The Fondation Cartier Bresson’s study of the two photographers in Mexico is superb. The juxtaposition of two figures treating the same country so differently - and producing such different results - encourages the visitor to see both Strand and Cartier Bresson’s practices clearly. The sparse curatorial style helps with this, as does the small size of the exhibition, which encourages depth of study.
The exhibition is divided into two rooms. The first focuses on Paul Strand’s work in Mexico. The American photographer was invited by the Mexican government to work in the country, producing The Wave, a film about oppressed fisherman in Alvardo that Strand termed “docu-fiction”.
Strand’s photographs of Mexico are painterly. Portraits are composed similarly to Renaissance or European 17th century portraits. Strand often asked people to pose for him and altered details while preparing shots. Everything, in these photographs, has its place; nothing is left to chance. Strand's figures feel removed from daily life; it’s their essence, not their activity, that Strand distills. They’re perfectly still, particularly striking shown alongside photographs of sculpted religious figures.
Strand’s photography uses light for dramatic effect. Often, as in ‘Boy in White Shirt’, a hat will obscure the face of a subject in deep shadow. The intensity of this is heightened by the white blaze of his shirt.
‘In the Market’ shows a girl in a dark shawl leaning against a white wall. Strand captures the textures of such backdrops beautifully, as if the viewer can almost feel the rough warmth through the image, but the heavy, forbidding shape of the shawl marks the girl's world as inaccessible. Similarly, in ‘Women at Gateway’ four women are shown huddled together -the photographer is not among them but set apart, and three of the four figures are turned away from him. Facial features are rarely clear, often shrouded in shadow, and Strand’s subjects often avert their eyes from the camera pointed at them. Where they do meet the camera’s gaze, it’s hard to tell what they’re thinking, as in 1933′s ‘Boy’. The child’s look seems knowing and concentrated, but to what does it refer?
Landscapes, too, are studied. Strand’s photographs are intended to be viewed together -in one section images are displayed in the order Strand originally arranged them for a portfolio. Landscapes and religious sculpture seem intended to give a deliberate context for people, placing them in an aloof, lonely land. Strand shows churches and desserts, not the shops and homes of daily life; the environment constructed is timeless and biblical. Churches are often glimpsed through gateways - again, the viewer is positioned outside the alien world at which Strand’s photographs hint.
Henri Cartier Bresson, eighteen years Paul Strand’s junior, spent a year in Mexico following work on a French ethnographic mission in Argentina. While there, he took photographs for publications, spent time with artists and intellectuals and, in March 1935, showed his work in an exhibition with Manuel Álvarez Bravo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Strand himself later wrote of his differences to Cartier Bresson, commenting on his practice as being about “a different sort of moment”. Where the older photographer used long exposure times and is heavy on intentionality and composition, Cartier Bresson’s work throws the audience into the middle of Mexican life.
Cartier Bresson’s work is very immediate. It feels less studied and less removed. In one shot from 1934, a man looks over his shoulder as if about to speak to the photographer. In his shots of prostitutes from the same year, women lean toward him, laughing, or eye the camera directly.
Cartier Bresson’s subjects are usually very close to the camera, but are never posed like paintings. This is life as it appears; in one shot, a child’s face fills half the frame, her mother’s body cut off at the neck. Subjects are asleep or lying on the ground. In others, children laugh with the photographer or attempt to hide their bodies.
Cartier Bresson’s shots are about action rather than silence. They’re about documenting daily life through the events that occur, while Strand’s photographs are more psychological, constructed, deliberate.
The difference between the two photographers is even clear in Cartier Bresson’s one landscape displayed. There’s nothing alien about the fields he shows. Nothing is in shadow or shown at dusk, eliminating the sense of isolation that permeates Strand’s deserts.
In 1935, Strand returned to America. Cartier Bresson came to New York soon afterward, invited by gallerist Julien Levy to show his work. Both were interested in film and both joined Nykino, the left wing film collective which later became Frontier Film. Cartier Bresson returned to France in 1936 to work with Jean Renoir. Strand also later moved to France, driven from the USA in 1951 by McCarthyism.
In 1952, Henri Cartier Bresson cemented his name in photographic history with the publication of The Decisive Moment. It’s clear, though, in this exhibition, that these same instincts for capturing life as it happened were at work in the 1930s. “Photography is not like painting,” he told the Washington Post in 1957. For Paul Strand, though, photography was very much like painting. In this show, neither approach stands above the other; two brilliant photographers capture, or create, beautiful portraits of Mexico in the early 1930s.