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Europeans Hardcover – May 1, 1998
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Henri Cartier-Bresson's amazing feat as a photographer is the ability to follow his heart and the keen vision of his mind and eye in each photograph. His subjects are only part of the image in the viewfinder, whose composition he sometimes arranges with geometric precision. Many of his best photographs also have startlingly broad political and sociological connotations, which gives the ordinary subjects extraordinary dignity, even grandeur. Europeans is filled with these images, which are often visually complex as well: a 1952 picture depicts a poor immigrant tilling hard ground while in the distance the prosperity-propelled factories of industry belch smoke into already smoggy skies. This is not just a picture of a poor man, or industrial power, or the contrast between the two. It's an open question about the meaning of life, with an anonymous no one--just another human being--at its center. Another wonderful image in this collection is a 1954 shot of a handsome soldier ogling two pretty women. It shows that even at the bleakest moments in their social history, Muscovites were not immune to pheromonal persuasion.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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Reader Caution: While there is relatively little nudity in this book, there is one final image of two female models resting on a couch that would probably cost this material an R rating if it were a motion picture. If you skip that photograph, you will probably not find the other partial female nudity offensive. This one work is actually asexual, in portraying posing nude as hard work from which one needs a totally relaxing break.
Review: Since World War II, Europeans have been struggling with their common heritage and how to balance it with the national, religious, and cultural ones. Gradually, the differences are being homogenized. Brilliantly, Henri Cartier-Bresson understood early on that the connections were stronger than most other people probably realized. By showing the similarities across countries and cultures, he creates an awareness of potential for friendship that would escape those who had never visited all of these countries.
The work revolves around unnamed themes. But any casual viewer will spot children playing, men and women enjoying a relaxed moment together, public observances of religion and politics, how humans are dominated by nature, the contrasts between rich and poor, and the artificial nature of much modern life. His work also explores the subtle ways that natural and human-made objects display the same forms and outlines.
Here are my favorite images in the book: Guilvines, Brittany, France, 1956; On the banks of the Seine, France, 1936; Palais-Royal, Paris, France, 1959: Amarante, Alto Douro, Portugal, 1955; Lamego, Beira Alta, Portugal, 1955; Madrid, Spain, 1932; Ariza, Aragon, Spain, 1953; Aquila, the Abruzzi, Italy, 1951; Torcello, Italy, 1953; Zurich, Switzerland, 1953; Ridnik, Serbia, Yugoslavia, 1965; Gyor, Hungary, 1964; Near Linz, Upper Austria, 1953; Tug-boat pilots on the Rhine, Germany, 1952; Warsaw, Poland, 1931; Moscow, USSR, 1954; Fishermen, near Suzdal, USSR, 1972; George VI's Coronation, London, England, 1937; Queen Charlotte's Ball, London, England, 1959; and Break between drawing poses, Paris, France, 1989.
You will also be intrigued by how much of the political content of what is portrayed here has changed since it was photographed. The scenes of celebrating Soviet Communism and its founders are gone. The Berlin Wall is gone. The positive identification with everything royal in England is diminished.
Naturally, there's a less pleasant side of this convergence that M. Cartier-Bresson did not choose to portray -- the dominance of mass culture with world brands and forms of entertainment, often from outside Europe. In fact, some have argued that the gravity pulling Europe together is that people like to have more choices when they shop. Isn't it interesting that this dimension was ignored?
M. Cartier-Bresson has a masterly touch for composition that is seen again and again in these photographs. The large two-page landscapes with small people in them show the kind of sophistication that only the most successful painters achieve in the oversized paintings you see in the Paris museums. M. Cartier-Bresson also shows his love for people by portraying them in attractive, positive ways . . . even when they come from different ends of the religious and political spectrum. How wonderful it must have been for him to see people so positively!
Those who are long-time Cartier-Bresson fans will be disappointed a little in the images here. You are probably used to seeing them reproduced in somewhat larger sizes. The sizes used here work, but bigger in this case would have been better.
After you read this book and enjoy its wonderful images, I suggest that you think about how people can make connections with one another that move from a deep spiritual commitment to helping one another, regardless of the basis for that commitment. Otherwise, all we may find we have in common in the future is that it will look like we all shopped in the same mall.
Stand taller by assisting those who want to receive a willing heart!