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Cartier-Bresson worked most intensely under the spell of Surrealism for just three years, from 1932 to 1934. For the next three, he virtually stopped taking pictures while he dabbled in filmmaking. But by 1937, right after his first marriage, he took a job as a photographer for the leftist Paris daily Ce Soir, work that bent him to the disciplines and conventions of deadline journalism. He didn't like them much. When he left that job in 1939, with World War II looming, he left the world of salaried employment for good. By June of the following year, he was a prisoner of war in a German labor camp, where he languished for three years before escaping.
Cartier-Bresson emerged from the war committed at last to the idea of himself as a photographer. His roots in Surrealism may have made him an unlikely candidate for the pivotal role he would soon play in the emergence of magazine photojournalism. But along with the photographers Robert Capa and David Szymin, known as Chim, he became a founding member of Magnum one of the dominant photo agencies in the years when plush weeklies like LIFE and Paris Match paid big money for pictures. As Galassi points out in the show's catalog, of the great figures of early modernist photography including André Kertész, Edward Weston and Walker Evans Cartier-Bresson "is the only one whose work blossomed so fully after the war."
How did he make this unlikely transition? No doubt it helped that he learned to rely less on the complex geometry of his earlier work and moved toward a more direct style. What you also get less often in pictures from his later years is the mesmerizing oddity of those from the '30s. In a Cartier-Bresson from, say, 1960, you feel that you're seeing a recognizable world through an exquisitely attentive eye. In the earlier work, you're seeing another world altogether.
Yet he never entirely let go of that world. Even in the 1950s and '60s, a whiff of the surreal persists. How else to describe the artificial sky filled with artificial planes in World's Fair, Brussels, 1958? And it's unmistakable in Torcello, Near Venice, 1953, where the spiked prow of a gondola reads the dial of an arched bridge, while also bearing down on a running girl who is nearly identical to a figure in Giorgio de Chirico's Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, a painting the Surrealists revered.
Until he put down his camera in the 1970s to devote himself to drawing, Cartier-Bresson almost never stopped traveling. He was at the scene of some of the most important stories of his time India in the final days of the British Raj, Beijing just before Mao's army entered. But his greatest gift was for pictures that didn't report anything more newsworthy than the erotic storm system of bodies in Coney Island, New York, 1946, or the domestic bliss of Bougival, Near Paris, 1956. An image of a man being greeted from the threshold of his houseboat by his wife, baby and dogs, it's a tour de force of art-historical synthesis. The collage-style juxtaposition of figures, the abrupt changes of scale between the man and what he's seeing: it's all very modern. But the supple line of the man's torso could have been drawn by Bronzino, while his wife and baby gently summon the long tradition of the Madonna and child which is apt, since this may be the most succinct picture of heaven ever made. If it's true that Cartier-Bresson was the Tolstoy of photography, it's because he knew that the great pulse of his time flowed through the humblest places.