The magazine of the photo-essay
November 2019 issue
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Henri Cartier BressonChina 1948-1949 I 1958
This project was inspired by a somewhat forgotten book by Henri Cartier-Bresson, D’une Chine à l’autre, published by Delpire in 1954, and the idea, approved by Agnès Sire, then director of the Fondation HCB, of turning this book into an exhibition. We were initially interested in the historic events the photographer had witnessed over a ten-month period from December 1948 to September 1949 – a period that saw the fall of the Kuomintang government and the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. We thought we should take a fresh look at the photographs themselves (some of them still among Cartier-Bresson’s most famous images), generally as a record of events and ways of life, but also particularly for their empathetic and poetic qualities. It was clear from the archives the Fondation made available to us that Cartier- Bresson’s long stay produced more than just “reportage”. This was an exceptionally
large collection of photographs and documents, giving an insight into the methods, intentions and perceptions of a major figure in the world of photography. We needed to examine this previously unpublished material in minute detail: several hundred original prints intended for distribution, all the contact sheets, the typed notes Cartier-Bresson wrote for each roll, the correspondence with the Magnum photo agency and with his parents, and all the articles published at  the time that reproduced his photographs. We also had to take another look at the material against the background of the political instability at the time: Cold War troubles, decolonization, and the rise of Communism in Central Europe and Asia. A member of the very new Magnum agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson had gained his artistic reputation from his 1947 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but he was not yet fully recognized as a photojournalist. The international magazine Life, which commissioned his original story on Peking, had long been a supporter of the Kuomintang Nationalists, whereas Cartier- Bresson’s sympathies lay more with the Communists. All these unusual circumstances made the 1948–9 stay in China a high point in Cartier-Bresson’s career. It was then (at the age of forty) that he developed the completely individual style of photojournalism which he never lost. Deeply affected by the chaotic episodes during this Chinese adventure (in Peking, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Nanking and Shanghai), and fascinated by Chinese culture (he later became a Buddhist), Henri Cartier-Bresson wanted to return to China to see the effects of the change of regime. The planned return took place in 1958, in the middle of the “Great Leap Forward” proclaimed by Mao Zedong. The wish of the Fondation HCB to include that second four-month stay in this project considerably widens the scope, in both resonance and contrast. Because China 1958 is the opposite of a retelling. Under the watchful eye of a guide and interpreter, Henri Cartier-Bresson travelled thousands of miles, from a great dam to steelworks, from a new oil well to a nursery school, from a peasant village to a collective commune. But he remained faithful to the familiar characteristics of “Henri Cartier-Bresson the photographer”, with his stealthy approach, the expressive structure of his images, and the self-effacing presence that enabled him to see into the true nature of his subjects. As he said: “Personally, I am interested almost exclusively in human beings.”
Scene from the black market for silver coins, Beijing, Dec 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
A visitor to the Forbidden City, Beijing, December 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
At the entrance to a tavern, Beijing, December 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Near the Forbidden City, a simpleton whose job is to escort brides in a sedan chair, Beijing, December 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Early in the morning, in the Forbidden City, ten thousand new recruits have gathered to form a Nationalist regiment, Beijing, December 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Gold Rush. At the end of the day, scrambles in front of a bank to buy gold. The last days of Kuomintang, Shanghai, 23 December 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Cultural meeting at the Canidrome, Shanghai, 4 July 1949. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
The window display of a brush merchant in the antique dealers’ street, Beijing, December 1948. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Construction of the Beijing University swimming pool by students, June 1958. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Celebrations for the 9th anniversary of the People’s Republic,  Beijing, 1 October 1958. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
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