24.7 x 16.4cm sheet; 50.7 x 40.5cm mount
‘To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give the event its proper expression.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson 1952 1
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s earliest artistic passion was painting, which he studied in Paris with André Lhote. In 1930 he turned to photography and spent the next decade travelling and photographing across Europe and Africa. At this time he was also active in motion pictures, and studied with Paul Strand in America and worked with Jean Renoir on documentaries during the Spanish Civil War. During the Second World War he was drafted into the French army, was captured by the Nazis and on escape in 1943 worked for the Resistance. In 1947, along with photographers Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger, he founded the cooperative agency Magnum. His famous text ‘The decisive moment’, published in 1952, remains one of the most enduring in photographic literature. In 1973 he returned to drawing as his primary form of artistic expression.
‘The crowning of John XXIII’ is one of a series of photographs taken of the crowd at the Vatican during the papal ceremony. The series is characteristic of an aspect of Cartier-Bresson’s work in which a significant event encapsulated a moment of heightened emotional intensity – in this instance, the religious fervour of devotees as the new Pope is enthroned. In these crowd scenes the photographer’s eye focuses on the expressive body language of individuals – and the audience as a whole – totally absorbed in acts of looking, listening and feeling. Here, form and content dissolve: the face of an elderly woman bearing witness, isolated from the crowd by dense foreground shadows – like the group of nuns and novices seated above (one in particular with glasses and binoculars) – engages the viewer with an intensity that one senses matches the ecstasy felt at that time.
1. Cartier-Bresson H 1952, ‘The decisive moment’, in Roth A ed 2001, 'The book of 101 books: seminal photographic books of the 20th century', PPD Editions, New York p 134
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
Martyn Jolly, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'International photo-documentary', pg.151-167, Sydney, 2007, 156, 163 (illus.).