Museum  November 22, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

Photographing a Changing Communist China

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Gold Rush. At the end of the day, scrambles in front of a bank to buy gold. The last days of Kuomintang, Shanghai, 23 December 1948.

Seventy years ago, the Communist leader Mao Zedong officially founded the People’s Republic of China. It was October 1st, 1949, and the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had left China just a few days before after being in the country for ten months. The current exhibition at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris celebrates the images taken during this ten-month period and the ones taken ten years later, in 1958, when Cartier-Bresson returned to China to document the effects of the Communist rule on the country during the Great Leap Forward. The exhibition presents 114 original prints from the 1948-49 period, 40 prints for 1958, and a collection of archive documents. It is the first time that the Foundation devotes its spaces entirely to Cartier-Bresson’s works.

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Near the Forbidden City, a simpleton whose job is to escort brides in a sedan chair, Beijing, December 1948.

Born in Chanteloup-en-Brie in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a bourgeois family of textile merchants and manufacturers. From a young age, he knew he did not want to take up the family business. His school years were spent studying painting and the arts. In 1929, he bought his first camera and, two years later, a 50mm Leica, a small, portable camera that became his personal favorite. In 1934, Cartier-Bresson met the Polish intellectual David Szymin (later David Seymour) and the Hungarian photographer Endré Friedmann, more widely known as Rober Capa. With them and other photographers—George Rodger, William and Rita Vandivert, and Maria Eisner—he founded Magnum Photos in 1947, one of the first photographic cooperatives owned by its members.

At the end of November 1948, Life magazine sent Cartier-Bresson to cover “the last days of Beijing” before the arrival of the Communist troops. Cartier-Bresson was supposed to stay for two weeks but remained for ten months, predominantly in the south, where he photographed the fall of Nanjing and the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the first months of life in Shanghai under Communist control.

The window display of a brush merchant in the antique dealers’ street, Beijing, December 1948.
© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

The window display of a brush merchant in the antique dealers’ street, Beijing, December 1948.

Construction of the Beijing University swimming pool by students, June 1958.
© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Construction of the Beijing University swimming pool by students, June 1958.

At the entrance to a tavern, Beijing, December 1948.
© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

At the entrance to a tavern, Beijing, December 1948.

Celebrations for the 9th anniversary of the People’s Republic, Beijing, 1 October 1958.
© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Celebrations for the 9th anniversary of the People’s Republic, Beijing, 1 October 1958.

The years that followed were a turning point in the history of China as they saw the end of the civil war between the Communist and Nationalist forces. They also signaled the beginning of a new idea of China based on the political and economic views of the Communist Party and its leaders. By being in China during this crucial historical period, Cartier-Bresson was able to photograph this transition but, instead of directing his attention to the political aspects, he decided to focus on the people. His reportage was a success because, as the critic Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), “When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, he shows that there are people in China, and that they are Chinese.” While this might seem an obvious statement for us sixty years later, in the early 1950s the idea of China and its people had been predominantly constructed over the political events that had shattered the world order since the Great War.

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

A visitor to the Forbidden City, Beijing, December 1948.

Cartier-Bresson used his small, concealable Leica to his advantage, taking photographs of the people and the situations around him without being noticed. This resulted in a very distinctive way of seeing based on “little human details.” The images that emerged from this stylistic and almost philosophical choice are considered to be the pioneer example of street and candid photography. Cartier-Bresson portrayed the daily lives of the Chinese people: a man eating in front of a tavern, the shy smile of someone whose job was to escort brides in sedan chairs, the concentrated expressions of men buying and selling silver coins at the black market, a lonely, black figure walking in the Forbidden City surrounded by fog. Yet some images critically looked at the Chinese situation, especially the ones taken in 1958. Pictures of political leaders towering over common people and mud-covered students digging a pool at the Beijing University showed glimpses of what China was slowly becoming under the Communist leadership.

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Early in the morning, in the Forbidden City, ten thousand new recruits have gathered to form a Nationalist regiment, Beijing, December 1948.

Cartier-Bresson was interested in the moment because he understood the fleeting aspect of life and memory. This exhibition discloses and reminds us of a time that passed, of people and traditions that disappeared; sometimes unnoticed, sometimes captured through a camera. “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant,” Cartier-Bresson noted, “We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson—China 1948-49, 1958 is on show at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris until February 2nd, 2020. 

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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