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The Art of Looking

Unguarded Moments Captured

The development of photography in the 19th century presented a fascinating new way of capturing the ever-elusive moment. As a result, art, history, politics, journalism, and the family vacation were forever changed. No longer were seminal moments forever confined only to imperfect memory or the artist’s canvas, but neither was anyone, or anything, safe from the all-seeing eye of the camera lense. Photography could capture both the carefully staged and the unanticipated, sometimes both in one frame.

Two exhibitions currently showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art allow viewers a glimpse at both aspects of photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century represents photography’s ability to artfully capture a moment in time, while Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870 displays its potential to steal forbidden moments.

Henry Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer whose life spanned practically the entirety of the 20th century (1908-2004), is famous for his images of some of the most important moments, and people, of the century. He traveled extensively, capturing moving tableaus from Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Ghandi’s funeral, Communist Russia, and the ruins of post-World War II Europe, as well as simple scenes of everyday life in Mexico, Italy, Indonesia, Egypt, India, Morocco, the United States, and, of course, France.

In all of these, though, Cartier-Bresson manages to beautifully capture not the official face of a particular event but the unguarded moments. His “Nehru with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Government House, Delhi, India” (1948), for instance, shows not a posed portrait of the three staring fixedly at the camera, but a laughing Lady Mountbatten seemingly sharing a private joke with Nehru as Lord Mountbatten scans the crowd.

Even his iconic portraits portray their subjects not in stiff poses but as though caught in the midst of a fluid moment: Alfred Stieglitz leans, legs crossed, on an unmade bed; Henri Matisse reclines comfortably in his chair, surrounded by bird cages, contemplating the dove in his hand; Alberto Giacometti works intently on a half-finished sculpture. Though portraits, very few depict the subject actually looking at the camera, lending a truthfulness and sense of intimacy to the scene.

Cartier-Bresson’s photos of the everyday, too, capture the intimate and transitory, supplying small windows into particular times and places. His photo essay on Bankers Trust Company, made in 1960, is particularly interesting in that it provides a rather enchanting contrast to the modern workplace. A man manually adds numbers on a paper spreadsheet in one photo, while in others men smoke cigarettes at their desks, secretaries take dictation, and computers are conspicuously absent from desktops.

Cartier-Bresson leverages his ability to frame the scene perfectly and press the button at exactly the right moment, resulting in beautifully captured scenes of unexpected moments and a truthful look the social and political history of the 20th century. While the works in Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870 also focus on fixing the unexpected moment in film, the context surrounding the works forces audiences to look at them in quite a different light.

When considered out of context, the photos in Exposed seem scattered and unrelated, a huge quilt randomly pieced together from all manner of situations and subject matter. Many of the photos, too, are quite amateurish in their style and quality, while others are wholly mysterious; we are not completely sure what it is that we are contemplating. However, when finally placed under the broad umbrella of voyeurism and the furtive stolen glance, the photos begin to cohere into a unified whole, one that ultimately proves both fascinating and deeply disturbing.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: “The Unseen Photographer,” “Voyeurism and Desire,” “Celebrity and the Public Gaze,” “Witnessing Violence,” and “Surveillance.” Each of the sections encompasses a different kind of forbidden looking, and all expose to the public eye that which is undesirous, or unaware, of being seen.

While some photographs seem rather innocuous, such as Walker Evans’ “Subway Passenger, New York” (1938) or Paul Martin’s “Listening to the Concert Party in Yarmouth Sands” (1892), others are blatant intrusions into the privacy of death, depravity, and humiliation. Eddie Adams’ “Viet Cong Officer Executed” (1968) graphically depicts the unceremonious moment of execution, while “Brother and Sister, from the series Teenage Lust” (1972), by Larry Clark, shows a nude and trussed young woman held at gunpoint by an equally nude teenage boy, an image made even more disconcerting by the title.

Not all are as disturbing as these, though. Many are photos secretly taken in order to expose social ills, such as Dorothea Lange’s “White Angel Breadline, San Francisco” (1933), while others depict stolen kisses or the Queen in rubber farm boots, playing with her Corgies. Yet there is always that element of intrusion, of theft, whether readily apparent or not.

While the interest of the works in Exposed lies primarily in their context, in that voyeuristic element, the works of Cartier-Bresson are an aesthetic delight as well as historically fascinating. The two shows are interesting complements of one another, both seeking to document but in quite different ways.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, now until January 30th
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870, now until April 17th
Free to $18