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MoMA

FILM EXHIBITIONS

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Films

April 8–11, 2010

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This screening series is held in conjunction with MoMA's major photography retrospective Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. Although Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) was principally a still photographer, he made six documentary films, four of which are presented here. Screenings are accompanied by commentary from Serge Toubiana, Director, Cinémathèque française, Paris.

Return to Life
Victoire de la Vie (Return to Life), a documentary on medical relief on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, was Cartier-Bresson’s first film, directed with Herbert Kline in 1937. Cartier-Bresson had learned the rudiments of documentary filmmaking in New York in 1935 through the left-wing cooperative Nykino, led by Paul Strand. Return to Life was produced by Frontier Films, which had evolved from Nykino. Jacques Lemare, the chief cameraman, would work two years later as a cameraman on Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game. Herbert Kline recalled that “most of the visual ideas” for Return to Life were Cartier-Bresson’s, while Kline, in collaboration with Cartier-Bresson and Jacques Lemare, developed most of the ideas for scenes. Cartier-Bresson subsequently directed two further documentaries in support of Republican Spain: With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain (1937–38, also with Herbert Kline) and L’Espagne vivra (Spain Will Live) (1938).

The Return
Cartier-Bresson was mobilized in September 1939, at the declaration of war between France and Germany, and was taken prisoner when the French army collapsed in June 1940. He escaped his Nazi work camp—Stalag VC, near Stuttgart—on his third attempt, in February 1943. In September 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris, he was commissioned by the United States Office of War Information to make Le Retour (The Return), a documentary about the repatriation of former prisoners of war and other displaced persons, on which he collaborated with Captain G. Krimsky and Lieutenant Richard Banks. Like Cartier-Bresson, writer-journalist Claude Roy, who provided the commentary, and Robert Lannoy, who wrote the music, were also former prisoners of war. The final sequence, at the Gare de l’Est, was shot by chief cameraman Claude Renoir, nephew of Jean Renoir.

Southern Exposures
A commission from CBS News in 1969 led to Cartier-Bresson’s last two films, twenty-five-minute documentaries for television. Shot in color with live sound, the films are collections of candid observations, free of narration or interpretive commentary. Cartier-Bresson chose the subjects: California, home to Leisure World and Esalen, surfing, and opponents and proponents of the Vietnam War; and Missisippi, home to the faded glory of the Confederacy, racist whites and progressive blacks, and atavistic religion. Both films portray some circumstances quite sympathetically, but they leave an overall impression of an alien culture that is fascinating largely because it is appalling. After a screening of Southern Exposures in Paris in 1971, Cartier-Bresson told a journalist, “For me, photography is sketching. On the other hand, to make a film is to make a speech.”

California Impressions
A commission from CBS News in 1969 led to Cartier-Bresson’s last two films, twenty-five-minute documentaries for television. Shot in color with live sound, the films are collections of candid observations, free of narration or interpretive commentary. Cartier-Bresson chose the subjects: California, home to Leisure World and Esalen, surfing, and opponents and proponents of the Vietnam War; and Missisippi, home to the faded glory of the Confederacy, racist whites and progressive blacks, and atavistic religion. Both films portray some circumstances quite sympathetically, but they leave an overall impression of an alien culture that is fascinating largely because it is appalling. After a screening of Southern Exposures in Paris in 1971, Cartier-Bresson told a journalist, “For me, photography is sketching. On the other hand, to make a film is to make a speech.”