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Eternity through the lens

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image Cartier-Bresson studied as a painter but soon discovered photograpy through the lens of a Leica 35 mm camera. Photo courtesy of Magnum Photos/Paris.

Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art is the only U.S. venue for the celebrated photographer’s work documenting the 20th Century


The last century seems so close but now, more than a decade into the next, it is possible to look back wistfully, perhaps occasionally wincingly. Henri Cartier-Bresson captured much of the last century through the lens of his camera. He didn’t just capture moments, he captured feelings. In an exhibit that opened on Saturday at the Tampa Museum of Art, more than 300 of his images are on display, including rare images of the man himself — a man who lived seeing the world through a lens but rarely allowed it to be focused on him.

Through his photographs, Cartier-Bresson defined how the world would see the 20th Century, now and forever. He had an innate sense for seeing life as it truly was, and capturing a moment — joy and sadness in eyes and in faces, wrinkles and laugh lines, even thoughts. Standing before his images, you don’t just see the subjects of his photos, you can feel them. You can feel their presence.

He is credited with creating modern photojournalism and for developing a style known as street photography — the split second of capturing everyday life in all of its beautiful, joyous and sometimes heartbreaking normalcy. In 1957, he told the Washington Post, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

The compassion he felt for people is visible in his body of work. His fame allowed him access to some of the world’s most celebrated artists, poets, actors, writers and even other photographers. Now in retrospect, it is clear he not only captured life and presences, he captured the culture as well. Yet his most striking images are of life being played out by people whose names have long been forgotten. I could feel the weariness and ache of manual laborers in Manhattan in the 1940s, I wasn’t yet born when he photographed life in Soviet Russia in the late 1950s, but his images open a door to those places, those times. Cartier-Bresson traveled the world leaving those doors open for those who wish to see, to feel, to almost hear the cacophony of life, whispers from the past, all as it was, in captured moments, with the sense of even more lying beyond the boundaries of the photo.

Mitch Trapagen photoCartier-Bresson passed away in 2004 at the age of 95. His photography has remained with Magnum Photos, the agency he formed with other celebrated photographers in 1947. The exhibit of 330 photographs, films and other publications, held in conjunction with the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation and Magnum Photos/Paris, has been seen in Zurich, Brisbane and Seoul. The Tampa Museum of Art is the only U.S. venue for the exhibition. Cartier-Bresson chose much of the exhibition before his death. It is presented in Tampa by Bank of America.

The exhibit runs through January 13, 2013. Tickets are $10, with Bank of America cardholders receiving complimentary access on the first full weekend of every month. The Tampa Museum of Art is located at 120 Gasparilla Plaza. For information, visit www.tampamuseum.org.

Cartier-Bresson is credited with saying, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” Through his photography, Cartier-Bresson has left the door to eternity open in the Tampa Museum of Art. All of what he saw, all of what he felt is still there. Just walk through the doorway.

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