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Henri Cartier-Bresson in China

On 25 November 1948 Life magazine commissioned Henri Cartier-Bresson to report on the last days of Beijing before Maoist troops moved in.


The photographer left for two weeks, but stayed in China for ten months, mainly in the Shanghai area. He witnessed the fall of the city of Nanjing held by the Kuonmintang and then was confined for four months in Shanghai which had come under Communist control. Afterwards Cartier-Bresson was more mobile moving around relatively freely. He managed to leave China a few days before the proclamation of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949 together with other journalists and companions.


23 Septembre 2019 - 06:00
     

Gold Rush. People scrambling to buy gold at a bank, during the last possible day in Shanghai, 23 December 1948 © Foundation HCB/Magnum Photos
Gold Rush. People scrambling to buy gold at a bank, during the last possible day in Shanghai, 23 December 1948 © Foundation HCB/Magnum Photos

This marked a seminal moment in the history of photojournalism because the longer stay permitted an in-depth glimpse into the traditional lifestyles which were to disappear from Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai.

Cartier-Bresson's accounts of life in China and the establishment of a new order fascinated readers of Life magazine and other top international news magazines like Paris Match to which the photographer was able to sell his stories. Last century, the great photographer often reiterated that it was the golden age of photography when Magnum photographers, as well as other photo-journalists, were able to make a living from selling the rights to the photographs and having books printed containing those images plus overseeing the printed contents.

This was of course also subject to a rigorous system of copyright which was still up-held by the business section of the agencies which often had offices simultaneously in New York, London and Paris.

One of the results of Henri Cartier-Bresson's successful rendering of what had happened in China, was the publication of books derived from his experience and his photography. He heralded the renaissance of photography after the war years not only because of the photography itself, but also because of his sharp intellect and sense of history. First came 'The Decisive Moment' published by Verve in 1952 and then 'D'une Chine à l'Autre' published by Robert Delpire in 1954 with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. These proved to be not only hugely successful in sales to the fascinated public, the popularity of Magnum photographers, in particular its charismatic leader, Henri Cartier-Bresson, exploded.

Comparing the two periods of China between 1948/1949 and four months in 1958

Celebrations for the 9th anniversary of the People's Republic, Beijing, 1 October 1958 © Foundation HCB/Magnum Photos
Celebrations for the 9th anniversary of the People's Republic, Beijing, 1 October 1958 © Foundation HCB/Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson had co-founded Magnum Photo Agency eighteen months earlier in New York, introducing a new style of reportage, less focused on single events to concentrate on the wider perspective of historical changes. These included the lives of simple people, all the while bringing a sense of poetic balance of composition, combined with a sharp sense of the importance of the newly awakening independence movement in China, as well as in other parts of Asia. The emphasis on the changing world order contributed to the importance of photography indicating where the future of world politics was probably heading.

Michel Frizot, together with Ying Lung Su, researched this rich period in Henri Cartier-Bresson's work in China which then spanned a decade as the photographer returned to Communist China in 1958 in a totally different context. This time he was accompanied by an official guide during his four months criss-crossing the huge country. However, he still found it possible to show the drawbacks of the new regime, including the exploitation of human labour and forced industrialisation and get out of the country with his photo material relatively intact, an exploit in itself. The hardships of the 'Great Leap Forward' orchestrated by Chairman Mao were a closely guarded secret protected by military powers.

Frizot noted that : "During these two episodes in 1948-1949 and 1958, each profoundly characterised by a contrasting political and social situation, Henri Cartier-Bresson successfully reconfigured the standard model of reportage or stories, while providing magazines with material to demonstrate through their pages the way of 'looking at life', which moved him like a 'kind of constant questioning and immediate answer."
 

Early in the morning in the Forbidden City, 10,000 new recruits to form a Nationalist regiment, Bijing, Dec. 1948 © Foundation HCB/Magnum Photos
Early in the morning in the Forbidden City, 10,000 new recruits to form a Nationalist regiment, Bijing, Dec. 1948 © Foundation HCB/Magnum Photos

The entire exhibition space will be occupied by 114 original prints from 1948-1949, 40 prints from 1958 and many archival documents.

Never before has the entire modulable exhibition space been taken up by one sole show, so this will be a premier for the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. The exhibition is curated by noted photo historian Michel Frizot with Ying Lung Su.

They both spent an extremely long time preparing this show which is under the artistic direction of Agnès Sire (Artisitic Director of the Fondation), together with the HCB collection curator Aude Raimbault who has now assembled the complete collection of photographic prints and publications of both Henri Cartier-Bresson and his deceased photographer wife, Martine Franck.

The accompanying publication, 'Henri Cartier-Bresson : Chine 1948-1949 / 1958' by Michel Frizot and Ying Lung Su is published by Delpire.

The exhibition opens on October 15th and will run until February 2nd 2020. It is presented with the support of the Gutenberg Agency.

Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson
79 Rue des Archives 75003 Paris
Tel : 0140615050
Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 19pm
Last entrance is at 18.20
Ticket costs 9€ or reduced price 5€
under certain conditions such as those over 65
students and other categories such as those handicapped, wheel-chairs etc
Métro: République, Hotel de Ville
Bus : 75 among many others


Kunang Helmi-Picard
Free lance journalism (Indonesia, for The Jakarta Post, Dewi and other Indonesian publications,... En savoir plus sur cet auteur




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