Paris Secrets: The Art of Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Each year, museums and galleries here host blockbusters. But, every once in a while, they also reveal Paris secrets. Many are now on show at the Pompidou Center’s massive exposition Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Paris secrets: lovers photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson

All photos: Henri Cartier-Bresson, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson/Centre Georges Pompidou.

It’s an exhibition filled with well-loved icons, the shots everyone recognizes from countless reproductions. Yet it’s what you’ve never seen—maybe never thought about—which makes it so compelling. Here’s a clearly French life, with a French talent for seeing. Plus it’s on the level of most things you’ll find in the Louvre.

Paris secrets: Parisians photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson

One of four founders of the legendary Magnum agency, Cartier-Bresson is best known for photojournalism. He’s also long been hailed as the father of street photography. But few other lensmen have ever equaled his eye. Almost every picture here has amazing rhythm, as well as an almost breathtaking poise. No accident, maybe, that Cartier-Bresson so loved to photograph dancers.

Paris secrets: the Eiffel Tower photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson

What’s most fascinating is to see how his eye evolved. A would-be painter and friend of the Surrealists, Cartier-Bresson tried several times to work in movies. There are delightful clips of him acting in classics by Jean Renoir. But, just like those colleagues with whom he founded Magnum, World War II deeply changed his ideas. Three years spent as a prisoner of war (after which he escaped to join the Resistance) convinced Cartier-Bresson that “news” was always more than statistics. “To get at the truth,” he maintained, “reality needs poetry.”

Paris secrets: a luncheon photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Until his death at 95, however, his work always retained the view of a Surrealist. The shots are full of the unexpected, of surprises and visual games.

Also, they offer us a window on bigness. Why? It’s hard to imagine anyone having greater access to his century. Paris in the Jazz Age, Russia after the death of Stalin, Cuba in the missile crisis—you name it, he got there. (A trip to photograph Gandhi changed dramatically when, hours after they met, the leader was assassinated.)

Paris secrets: the playful photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Whether you love photography, travel or just iconic art, this is a show with something for anyone. Neither will you find more Paris secrets anywhere. Just be sure to book ahead—and go early in the day!

Paris secrets: Henri Cartier-Bresson captures the unexpected in his photographs

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Centre Georges Pompidou

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