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Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century by Peter Galassi | Book review

Sean O'Hagan is intrigued to find so many decisive moments in a photographer's lifetime

Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that photography was "a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one's one originality. It is a way of life". This big book, which accompanies a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, shows how much photography was a way of life for a man who is one of the undisputed masters of the medium.

It contains 300 images, some of which are familiar, even over-familiar, but many of which have not been seen before. In his illuminating introductory essay, the curator of the Moma show, Peter Galassi, writes: "Cartier-Bresson's legacy… is a vast resource whose greatness would be sorely diminished if attention were paid only to its many perfect gems." What intrigues most here, though, are the many perfect gems that never made it into his books.

The Modern Century, then, is a reassessment of Cartier-Bresson's importance both as the master of what he called "the decisive moment" and as a chronicler of the changing times in which he lived. Though he is best remembered for what might be termed his gentle reportage of everyday life, he was an inveterate adventurer, roaming though his native France, America, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, China, Iran and Egypt. He was travelling across America, when Magnum, the agency with which his name is inextricably linked, was founded.

Take the photograph simply entitled New York City 1946. It is as if he thought any other information was unnecessary. As Galassi notes, it captures a moment of "considerable simplicity and wholeness", but also a moment of intense dramatic intimacy: a mother reunited with her son after the Second World War.

The setting is an overcrowded pier where every face tells a story. The mother is tenderly solicitous, the son overwhelmed with emotion. Behind him, a man looks suspiciously at the camera, his anxiety and uncertainty apparent. Above the embracing couple, a man waves happily in recognition of someone out of the frame while, beside him, another man strains to catch a glimpse of a returning relative or friend. In the bottom left hand of the frame, a child looks hopefully into the middle distance. It is a photograph so teeming with life and drama that it could form the basis of an epic film or novel. It is, in short, the decisive moment writ large. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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