Henri Cartier-Bresson | Shanghai, Jan 1949

On the day the Japanese Army surrendered in September 1945, the wars in Asia were far from over. As Ronald Spector notes in a recent book, “A Continent Erupts,” the peoples under the territories until recent occupied by Japan had vastly different visions about their postcolonial future which led to savage and bitter conflicts.

Nowhere was this brutal conflict more pronounced than in China were 2.5 million combatants and 16 million civilians were to perish between 1945 and 1949. The World War in Asia had practically began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and it has dragged on as the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek cut secret deals with the defeated Japanese commanders in 1945-46 to engage some Japanese troops against the Communists.  

The Nationalists nominally still controlled the cities, but the power was slowly slipping away from them. Economy, after seventeen years of war, was in a nosedive and in order to keep funding the war (now without major support from the Western Allies), the Nationalists began printing paper money in vast quantities. Technically, they were backed by gold, but amount of Chinese fabi in circulation grew from 189 billion to 4.5 trillion by 1946.

The government tried to intervene – firstly by introducing a new currency, gold yuan and then eventually by trying to return China to silver standard – but nothing would work. In a typical dictatorial fashion, the government mandated all Chinese holding gold, silver, or foreign currency were required to surrender such assets in return for “gold yuan,” under penalty of death. Chiang appointed his own son in charge of these measures who led a reign of terror, sending trucks from house to house to confiscate the assets.  In mid-1948, currency was trading at one million yuans to a US dollar. By February 1949, it was six million yuans to a dollar. Paper factories in Kwangtung found it more cost effective to pulp hundred yuan bills to making new paper.

By now, the end was drawing near. Starting in December 1948, the government had been shipping out the nation’s gold reserves to Taiwan, knowing that the Communists would soon over run the major cities. In December, 2 million taels of gold (~75 tons), nearly half of the government’s gold, carried out of the central bank in the traditional manner – by coolies, parceled up on bamboo poles – down the gangplank onto a freighter bound for Keelung in northern Taiwan.  

This action, observed by George Vine, a British journalist looking out of his fifth-floor office window one night, would prompt a nationwide bank run. That was the situation when Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in Shanghai in January 1949. Outside four government banks on the old Bund, a vast crowd teemed. In order to prove that there was still gold in the vaults, the government started selling gold from the reserves at around half the price what the black marketers were charging. Each person was limited to forty grams of gold, and thousands had been waiting in line since eight pm the previous night, ignoring the eleven pm curfew. The police made only a token gesture toward maintaining order, resulting in ten deaths by suffocation or by being trampled, by five pm the following day.

The government gave up this scheme quickly.  Meanwhile, they were shipping off gold — another 14 tons of gold was being moved out of Bank of China’s vaults under the Bund just as Cartier-Bresson was documenting the chaos above. The gold and silver was escorted down to Taiwan by Mei Ching, a ship which would later defected to the Communists, highlighting the risks involved in such a transfer.

By the time Shanghai fell to the Communists, almost 100 tons of gold reserves were safely in Taiwan already.

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Seville | Henri Cartier-Bresson

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In 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson set out on a tour of Southern Europe and the Maghreb; this journey with his 35 mm Leica was to be his formative tour that set out the rules of the art for not only the 25-year old photographer but also for a century of photojournalists who followed him.

In Seville in 1933, he took the photo above, later entitled, “Children Playing in Ruins”. Cartier-Bresson was always pithy in descriptions and it was not entirely clear where exactly in the city he took the photo, or how the ruins come to be. His contact sheets reveal that he chose the photos which were among the first he made on that occasion.

There is not much to write about this photo. His usual journalistic eye was at work, depicting youthful vigor sprouting out of decayed detritus. However, soon afterwards, the Spanish Civil War broke out, affecting many cities Cartier-Bresson passed through. Seville was where the first shots were fired, and the photo — with its ruined buildings and crippled children — became associated with the horrors of that war, even though it was made three years earlier.

Andre Breton, the surrealist who was among the first to use photographs in his books, used the photo to illustrate his chapter on the Spanish Civil War as early as 1937 in Mad Love. Many others followed, and even this author believed this was made in the aftermath of the war, not before it.   

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The Men Behind ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ Curtain

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Who Took This Photo of Imperial Eunuchs in Peking?

Sometime in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power, three great photographers met in a dimly lit Berlin apartment to create a fourth. Munkasci, Robert Capa, and Chim were all of Jewish origin, and now they found their best work refused by anti-Semitic publications all over Europe. Out of work and starving, the trio decided to create a fictional photographer, under whose non-Jewish name they could publish their work.

So the impeccably bourgeois pseudonym of ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ was born. For American publications, the name would be modified to ‘Hank Carter’. The story of this prank is masterfully recounted in Paolo Rilf’s book, “Cartier-Bresson: A Man, A Myth” (1993). Dr. Rilf was initially puzzled by the fact that there no photographs of Paris or France in the early life of this quintessentially French photographer.

Initially conceived to earn extra money, the pseudonym was to be laid to rest after the war in a ‘posthumous’ MOMA retrospective in 1947. But Capa wanted to poke fun at the pretentious New York museum; for eight hundred francs, he hired a Parisian wine-merchant to pose as camera-shy Cartier-Bresson.

Around this time, the photo-agency Magnum was founded to pool photographs of many a lensman for Cartier-Bresson’s debut book. In the coming years, using the byline ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ enabled many photographers to travel anonymously in troubled hotspots around the world; in 1948, he famously reported from India, China, and Indonesia. Dr. Rilf’s book, long out of print but going to be reissued later today (April 1st), is a masterful tale which doubles as a detective thriller.

Che Guevara | Rene Burri

Iconic Photos continues its trek into the world of contact sheets. 

A minor mission of a site such as Iconic Photos is to educate its readers; accordingly, we have written about various aspects of photography, from its master practitioners to its use and abuse to lately, a year-long look at contact sheets. Many, including great photographers, believe contact sheets reveal more about a situation than an individual frame.

But, to coin a phrase, everything lies. Even photographs. Even contact sheets.

Look closely at the following contact sheet by René Burri, featuring a famous photo of Che Guevara. At the first glance, it seems to be single sequence but it is, in fact, a composite of different negatives from different cameras using different lenses.

Each week at the Magnum offices in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson would review the contact sheets submitted by younger photographers returning from assignments. It was a daunting experience, not least because Cartier-Bresson had a peculiar way of critiquing, where he would rotate the contact sheet slowly, looking at it upside down and from all possible angles, studying the composition and scrutinizing the content.

René Burri realized that with Che’s pictures, the critique would be more incisive than ever (Cartier-Bresson himself was in Cuba for a Life assignment simultaneously with Burri, but was denied closer access to Che). Burri wanted to make sure that he didn’t miss a shot. He went on the assignment with three cameras, and submitted to his mentor a composite contact sheet. It was unclear whether Mr. Cartier-Bresson caught this sleight of hand.

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In a Guardian interview from 2010, Mr. Burri remembers visiting Havana:

Laura Bergquist, a star reporter with Look magazine, had met Che Guevara at the UN in October 1962, after the Cuban missile crisis. She bugged him so much that he told her: “If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on.” She got the green light from the Americans – and I went with her.

We arrived at Che’s office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: “Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light.” But he said no. I thought, well, it’s your face, not mine.

Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.

We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story. This picture was only an eighth of a page. It certainly wasn’t a photo essay, like the one Henri Cartier-Bresson did for Life magazine at the same time. He was in town with us, but only got to shoot Che at a press conference.

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika

“Think while you shoot”, wrote Martin Munkacsi in Harper’s Bazaar. From his early years as a sports photographer for the Hungarian newspaper Az Est to his formative years as a news photographer in German weeklies, to his revolutionary career as a fashion photographer in New York, Munkacsi practiced this cerebral approach to grace and glamour. He revolutionized his art with a combination of extreme angles, unusual situations, and surprising locations. His photo of Lucile Brokaw running on the beach featured in Harper’s Bazaar (December 1933) and his photos of Leni Riefenstahl on ski-slopes, which appeared in Vanity Fair on January 1934, cemented his reputation as the “kinetic man” of photography. When he signed $100,000 contract (equivalent to $1.5 million today) with Bazaar, he is one of the highest paid photographers in 1940.

His work with what was then a new invention—the 35mm camera—inspired some of the great names in photo history, including Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The above photo, of Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika , was credited by Cartier-Bresson as “the only photograph to have influenced me.” On seeing these boys in a moment of freedom, spontaneity and joy, Cartier-Bresson commented: “In 1932, I saw a photograph by Martin Munkácsi of three black children running into the sea and I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks. I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment …. [it] made me suddenly realise that photography could reach eternity through the moment. I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.'”

But Cartier-Bresson who abhorred darkroom manipulations – but whose iconic photo was ironically one of only two images he cropped – probably didn’t know the story behind Munkacsi’s photo. Not only how much the framing was altered in the darkroom was unclear, but where it was taken was also uncertain. Munkácsi supposedly photographed the scene at Lake Tanganyika in 1930, while on assignment in Africa for German magazine BIZ. However, his assignment was to document Liberia – 2,000 miles away from Lake Tanganyika. To add to the confusion, the above picture was sometimes simply titled ‘Liberia, 1930’. The photograph did not fit in with Munkácsi’s other images of Liberia, and was not published until the following year, in the French arts magazine Arts et Métiers Graphiques.

Brokaw on the left and Riefenstahl on the right epitomized Munckacsi Method

Au Bord de la Marne

Although he would later be feted as the father of photojournalism, Henry Cartier-Bresson was at his best when he was taking photos which didn’t ‘report’ anything — men in Parisian streets, sunbathers whether they be at Peter and Paul fortress or Coney Island. At the first glance, the above picture — one of Cartier-Bresson’s most famous — seems exactly like it: languorous workers in Juvisny spending a lazy afternoon on the bank of River Marne.

In fact, it was one of the photos Cartier-Bresson took during his first (and last) salaried job with the Parisian leftwing newspaper, Ce Soir in 1937. The assignment was for a campaign to win more vacation time for workers, and his editors hated the self-indulgent poses (picnic baskets, wines and all that) and the final spread on the story didn’t use the photo. The photo has been since been compared to paintings by Degas and Seurat. Cartier-Bresson who never named any of his photos would have been content with one title given by critics, Sunday on the Banks of Marne. Originally trained as a painter, Cartier-Bresson remained devoted to painting his entire life, and retired from photography to paint at the apex of his career.

Nehru and the Mountbattens

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In 1947, Henri Cartier-Bresson was in India for the first time to document the newly independent India. His most famous picture of the Independent India was that of Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, and PM Nehru on the steps of Government House, Delhi. Nehru and Mountbatten’s wife Edwina shared a joke while the viceroy looked whimsically away. HCB’s juxtaposition compared and contrasted the English reserve and native candidness.

The photo takes another dramatic interpretation when it became known that Lady Edwina Mountbatten had an affair with Jawaharlal Nehru throughout Mountbatten’s viceroyalty. The pair even resumed that relationship on Nehru’s subsequent visits to England. Lord Mountbatten, who was also rumored to be a closeted homosexual (his wife was also accused of being a bisexual), knew about the relationship, and was not only tolerant but encouraging. When Edwina died at the age of 58 in 1960, Nehru not only gave an eulogy in the Indian Parliament but also sent an Indian Navy frigate to the spot where she had been buried at sea in the English Channel, to cast a single wreath of marigolds.

For a scholarly account of the relationship and how it influenced Indian independence, see Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer.

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Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare

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He was arguably the last century’s greatest photographer, and the photograph above was to Time magazine, “The Photo of the Century”. While honored and remembered as the premier photojournalist, Henri Cartier-Bresson also gave the world the jewels of the street photography, most famous among which was this 1932 picture, Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare.

By then, photographs of puddle jumpers were clichés, but as New York Times remembered, “Cartier-Bresson brings to his image layer on layer of fresh and uncanny detail: the figure of a leaping dancer on a pair of posters on a wall behind the man mirrors him and his reflection in the water; the rippling circles made by the ladder echo circular bands of discarded metal debris; another poster, advertising a performer named Railowsky, puns with the railway station and the ladder, which, flat, resembles a railroad track.”

However, the picture that defined Cartier-Bresson’s career was ironically one of only two pictures he cropped. He detested the darkroom techniques and to prevent his editors from cropping, he sent his pictures with a black border — the frame he himself imposed at the instant he snapped the picture. However, behind the train station, he couldn’t managed to do this:

“There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped. The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason why the picture is cut off on the left,” he explained in his usual laconic manner.

Read H.C.-B.’s obituary by James Nachtwey here.

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Nehru announces Gandhi’s death

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1947 found Henri Cartier-Bresson in India to document her independence. As the result of several years’ close friendship with Mahatma Gandhi, his family and closest friends, Cartier-Bresson was easily granted a photo session with Gandhi (something not all photographers can hope for). As soon as Gandhi broke his last fast, Cartier-Bresson managed to photograph Gandhi. Among these photos, which he took for LIFE, was the last photo taken of Gandhi when he was alive.

Fifteen minutes after HCB took this picture and left Gandhi’s Brila House, he heard shouts that Gandhi had been assassinated. He ran back and took the pictures of Gandhi’s family at his deathbed. However, the most emotional picture of the night is yet to come—the above picture that carried with it the cries and wails of the entire subcontinent. That night, visibly shocked Prime Minister of India, Mr. Nehru would announce the death of Mahatma Gandhi to the crowd outside his home.

Cartier-Bresson vividly remembered how he came to possess this iconic image. There was an anguished mob outside the Brila House, he recounted, and he took that picture at ¼ s., at I.5, by holding his breath. It was an extremely challenging shot for the photographer who never used flash. The photo was an accurate reflection of the moment that could be called the Hindu Götterdämmerung. Nehru’s face appeared slightly blurred, the face of an English officer sitting next to him was half-lit, while ghastly lights beamed at the camera from various directions. It is as if Cartier-Bresson’s Leica had captured the great Gothic moment our limited human mind cannot fathom.

Ezra Pound

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Henri Cartier-Bresson took many portrait pictures during his life, but his wife, Martine Franck accompanied him to just one — probably atypical — portrait session. It was that of the poet Ezra Pound in Venice in 1971, a year before his death at 87.

“There was a tremendous, heavy silence,” recalled Ms. Franck, herself a photographer. “Pound didn’t say a word. He just seemed to condemn the world with his eyes. We were there for about 20 minutes. I stayed to one side. I huddled in a corner. Henri took seven pictures.”

What Pound felt is impossible to know. Years earlier, he had been interned for mental illness, and in 1960, he lapsed into long periods of depressive silence and stopped writing. And yet, in the image selected by Cartier-Bresson, Pound’s wild hair, burning eyes and tense hands seem to speak volumes about an old man raging against the dying of the light.

Behind the Gare St. Lazare

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Gare St. Lazare has been portrayed by many artists (Monet, Manet, et al) but Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 take on the station was totally different. Derrière la gare de Saint-Lazare is not a photo noted for its historicity, but it is a photo that represented the entire life’s works of Cartier-Bresson. Throughout his life, Cartier-Bresson had been a champion of the Decisive Moment, and a seeker of the unexplored–Derrière la gare de Saint-Lazare represents both, and defined his career.

However, Cartier-Bresson didn’t intend this to gain such an iconicity. “There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare St. Lazare and I was peeking through the space with my camera at my eye. This is what I saw. The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason the picture is cut off on the left.” Again he proved he was the right man at the right moment

Coronation of King George VI

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Henri Cartier-Bresson took this picture in Trafalgar Square on King George VI’s coronation day on 12th May 1937. It was a difficult time for the British Public–the previous year saw the death of King George V and the abdication crisis of Edward VIII. The furore over Mrs. Wallis Simpson had settled down, but visible scars remained.

It was the occasion where Cartier-Bresson first made his name as a photojournalist. He covered the coronation for the French weekly Regard, which was displeased that ‘Cartier’ (his original nom de plume) did not take any picture of the king or the carriage. Instead, in above photo, Cartier-Bresson focused his photo not only on this jubilant public (who apparently left the discontent of last winter) but also on the sleeping man, who like many others above him had waited overnight, and was now missing the coronation procession. In this sense, Cartier-Bresson’s camera missed the carriage too, but for him, the importance lies not with the casket but with the people diverse, but united. It was his way of portraying history–mourning crowds, cheering mobs, frail old men, dancing girls–his lens saw the people who saw history.