Reaching Eternity through the Moment

The Humanistic Historicism of Cartier-Bresson's Photographs

Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most revered and influential photographers of the 20th century and he was instrumental in shaping modern photojournalism. He approached moments both minute and monumental with great curiosity, elevating even the most passing, ordinary of events into dynamic flashes that told of the very experience of being human. 

Reveling in these small moments, Cartier-Bresson sidestepped standard hierarchies of visual and social importance to show what was happening on the margins. In May 1937, he was sent by French Communist newspaper Ce soir to photograph the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. He did not take a single photograph of the royal procession and instead focused on the crowd that had gathered to witness the historical event. 

Detail of the present lot showing onlookers watching the royal procession

King George VI and the royal family at his coronation

King George VI's brother, Edward VIII, had abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcée, causing scandal in the United Kingdom. The lavish ceremony was meant to reestablish the royal family as the respected, symbolic figureheads of the nation. 

The present lot depicts a man sleeping among discarded newspapers, tired from waiting overnight, as others watch the spectacle before them. The accumulation of the people echoes the clutter of the papers below, suggesting that the coronation will soon be "yesterday's news," and that people will lose interest, as the sleeping man already has, exhausted by his own anticipation. Cutting through the pomp and circumstance of the coronation and the idle worship of power and status, Cartier-Bresson reveals the true significance of the decisive moment—simply to "capture a fraction of a second of reality."

Above all I crave to sieze the whole essence, in the confines of a single photograph, of some situation that was unrolling itself before my eyes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson