The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation is devoting a major exhibit to the work that made the photographer such a key figure in photojournalism: China from 1948 to 1949. A multi-faceted project that laid the foundations of his photographic style while serving as the model for a new kind of photojournalism, empathic and innovative.
Late 1948: China was on the verge of an unprecedented political upheaval. The Nationalist government (Kuomintang) was struggling to fight back the advance of the People's Liberation Army (Communist), which looked like it might win any day. A member of the fledgling Magnum Photo agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was offered an assignment from Life magazine on November 25, 1948 to go do a report on the "the last days of the Kuomintang" in Beijing, the last Nationalist city about to fall into the hands of the Communists. Initially scheduled to stay there two weeks, he ended up staying ten months and traveling throughout China. At the end of the trip, he had produced a photographic report of exceptional scope.
Viewers enter the exhibition as if through a backdoor in a back alley, and are then immediately projected into the middle of a crowded tavern where merchants, children, workers, old men and a few caged birds mingle. Despite the urgent necessity of documenting a city on the verge of being taken over by the Communists, Henri Cartier Bresson managed to point his camera at these furtive, peripheral scenes, which make up the face of an indolent and unchangeable Beijing. With his usual sense of ellipsis, he takes viewers from taverns to paintbrush shops, from the black market to the Forbidden City, capturing along the way the mischievous baby faces of a few street children or a simple-minded adult—touching and poetic images that show a China anchored in ancestral traditions and that provide a journey back in time.
In Shanghai, Henri Cartier-Bresson found a whole different atmosphere. Although still far away from the advance of the Communists, the agitation was palpable in this city of five million people, home to both the richest and the poorest. From his building, he towered over the Soochow Creek docks, where people lived in poverty on their sampans—those flat-bottomed boats that serve as homes for the poor—and from which Nationalist officers set sail with their families. He roamed the poor and desolate city with his wife Ratna, who was frightened when they came across the corpse of a newborn wrapped in a winter coat. In addition to the ambient sense of discouragement, there was the panic over the devaluation of the local currency: the Gold Yuan. Everyone wanted to exchange their money, and the lines in front of the banks grew longer every day. On December 23, 1948, the riots broke out and Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the few witnesses to this tragic day on which seven people lost their lives. Published two weeks later in Life magazine under the title "Shanghai Panic," this image became the metaphor for the fight for survival and an iconic photograph in his repertoire.
Ten years later
In 1958, Henri Cartier-Bresson returned to China to observe the effects of the regime change on its tenth birthday. He produced this second report as part of an agreement between the now famous Magnum photo agency and some of the biggest international magazines. But his travel conditions had changed drastically: he was always accompanied by a translator and guide and forced to follow a very specific program, designed to show him the most famous achievements of the new Communist regime. Celebrations, parades, dams under construction, railway inaugurations: Henri Cartier-Bresson attended all the events that the regime wanted to show to the world. But the photographer's quick eye managed, for a brief moment, to capture what was happening behind the scenes and to point his camera at the abuse of that authoritarian regime, as with this image of a young student standing in the mud and struggling on the construction site for the Peking University swimming pool. A powerful image that captures the reality of this new China, which came into being under the lens of the famous photographer.
By Coline Olsina
HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON - CHINA, 1948-1949 | 1958
From 15 October 2019 to 2 February 2020
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 79 rue des Archives, 75003 Paris