The “decisive moment” that Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) sought to capture in his work has much to do with skill, of course, but perhaps a twist of fate, too. “India in Full Frame,” a show of sixty-nine photographs taken during the photographer’s travels throughout India in 1947–48, chronicles the political and social upheaval following Indian independence from British colonial rule. The last vestiges of colonialism cogently appear in a shot of the upright and uniformed British Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and his wife, with a jovial Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister. Cartier-Bresson also managed to secure a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, capturing the national hero fasting in protest of the partition of Pakistan along religious lines. Hours later, Gandhi was assassinated. Rushing back to the scene, Cartier-Bresson was one of the only photographers on hand to photograph the aftermath. His explosive shots of Gandhi’s body surrounded by flowers and grieving devotees, of a shaken Nehru at the funeral, and the thousands who lined the streets to see his ashes carried by train to the Ganges, propelled him to international fame when they were published in LIFE and other magazines, some of which are displayed in vitrines at the Rubin. These heart-rending scenes of shared national anguish are countered by the upheaval at the Pakistani border, where Cartier-Bresson turned his camera to the massive refugee camps that sprung up there. Yet some of the most moving and beautiful works are everyday street scenes divorced from political turmoil. He crystallized the outward ripples radiating from individual lives, national affairs, and global events.
Pictured: Henri Cartier-Bresson: Women Spreading Out Their Saris before the Sun, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 1966, 13¾ by 20⅝ inches. Courtesy the Rubin Museum of Art, New York.