A review of Henri Cartier-Bresson's "India in Full Frame" at The Rubin Museum of Art

Museum Visit

Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame

The Rubin Museum of Art

The Rubin is filled with sounds echoing throughout its floors. The soundscape echoing in the museum is made up of sounds from nature, such as running water and rustling foliage, as well as hypnotizing musical instruments that ring, ding, and gong. When entering the fifth floor of the museum, home to Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition, one feels in India. Well, a representation of India, as imagined and purified by a Westerner, which is perfectly apt for “India in Full Frame.”

The show is filled with photos Cartier-Bresson took in India between the late 1940’s and the early-1950’s. They marry the documenting of India during a great shift into Independence and the burgeoning photojournalism prompted by his co-founding of Magnum. Although the photographs are overtly taken from a Westerners perspective, they lack both the condescension and orientalism of the travel photography that preceded Cartier-Bresson.[1]

Cartier-Bresson’s photos capture India as only his eyes could, geometrically framed, perfectly lit, spiritual. Even the Ganges seems aesthetic through his eyes, masters as framing and positioning as they are. The photo best exemplifying Cartier-Bresson’s natural exemplary composition is perhaps While Ramana Maharshi is Dying in His Last Incarnation, and Thus Becoming a God, His Favorite Peacock (the Gift of a Raja) Strolls the Ground of His Last Earthly Home (1950). In the image foreground is a white peacock, feather spread out like an abstract form. In the background, much less substantial are onlookers, as well as a tree, whose dark branches seem to mirror the peacock’s white shape. As Cartier-Bresson wrote in his book The Decisive Moment, “A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter.” This millimeter instinctive precision lead to the entire composition of the photo, particularly the magic of one of the feather’s seemingly grabbing a man’s head, who is already separated from the rest of the onlookers by the form of the creature. This formal relationship between man and bird is spiritual, and paired with title seems to represent the holiness of death within the reincarnation cycle. When Cartier-Bresson pressed the shutter, it was in an instant, but an instant of perfection.

Cartier-Bresson is able to capture both feel and story in an instant, the printed results repeatedly striking. The first blow I encountered when entering the show is his 1947 photograph, An Astrologer’s Shop in the Mill Worker’s Quarter of Parel. At first glance one is drawn to the expression of a man, returning the camera’s gaze. He sits center-frame with captivating eyes. After this, other elements begin to reveal themselves – the writing on his forehead, the man in the background, the broken English writing on the sigh of his shop, and finally, if one keeps his gaze, the skulls above his head. The frame itself is split into thirds, each one carrying an important part of a story to be told. The sign places us, not only in the specific shop, but in the state of place that requires English as a language. The middle of the frame is the main character, who beckons us to learn more. The third part is the reality, the depth, the elements that contribute to the understanding of him and the world of the image.

Cartier-Bresson sees what other do not. In A Big Pilgrimage Takes Place on the 1st Full Moon of April (1950) the frame, once again, is split into equal parts. At the top is a what seems to be a chariot adorned with winged horses. Below it are the pilgrims, foreheads covered in a white paste. Cartier-Bresson sees the relationship and dynamic between the two and therefore they equally share the frame. This would not be intuitive for the layman, but it is naturally embedded in the eye of Cartier-Bresson.

Not only does Cartier-Bresson identify the relationship between objects and people in space, but he recognizes light as an object and more than just a tool. In his photo Nehru Announces Gandhi’s Assassination to a Crying Crowd (1948), a streak of light hovers and seems to lift Nehru, as another shrouds the crowd beneath him. He is elevated, and they are caught in a tear. In this magnificent framing, with an added motion blur, Cartier-Bresson produces the emotions of the moment, without an overtness one would expect from a documentation of this historic moment. Through his mastery over speed and millimeter changing of an angle or perspective, Cartier-Bresson was able to capture an essence of newly-Independent India in the beautifully nuanced gaze of a documenter and lover.


[1] Such as Félix-Jacques Moulin’s photographs from his various travels.