French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson immersed himself fully in the various artistic revolutions of the 1920s—including surrealism—but by the ’30s, he’d become preoccupied by photographs’ potential to freeze time in unexpected ways. Largely eschewing portraiture, Cartier-Bresson took to the streets with a handheld Leica camera and looked for those rare shots that were geometrically compelling as well as evocative of a fleeting moment. He also worked off and on in motion pictures, documenting everyday life in trying times—whether during the Spanish Civil War or in the early ’70s in America. In his films, Cartier-Bresson also prized a strong mix of composition and action, but unlike his photographs, Cartier-Bresson’s documentaries linked the images with an explanation of their relevance.
The DVD set Henri Cartier-Bresson contains five of those documentaries: Victory Of Life, a 1937 propaganda piece about the need for medical supplies among Spain’s anti-Franco forces; Spain Will Live, a 1938 cine-essay tracing the creeping influence of fascism across Europe; The Return, a unique 1945 war correspondence covering the release of World War II POWs; and California Impressions and Southern Exposures, two half-hour cultural travelogues made for CBS television in 1970 and ’71, respectively. The first three are fine as history, but rarely convey Cartier-Bresson’s sensibility as an artist or a journalist. The latter two, though, are very much like moving versions of a Cartier-Bresson photo. Whether shooting at a church supper or at a ladies’ auxiliary meeting of a civil-rights organization, the director stays out of the way of his subjects and focuses not on dramatic confrontations, but on the charmingly ordinary: the faces of babies eating, for example, or an old Southern dame’s collection of antique fans. Even in his war films, Cartier-Bresson would take the time to show how cotton gets rolled and sterilized for bandages, and how American soldiers subject liberated townsfolk to a good delousing. Always, Cartier-Bresson had an eye on the exotic embedded in the everyday.
Key features: The set also contains a second disc of short documentaries about Cartier-Bresson, each of which offers provocative discussion of the photographer’s aesthetic—often delivered by Cartier-Bresson himself—along with copious samples of his work. Collectively, they prove unsatisfying as biography, but useful as an illustration of what made the man a legend.