The Fondation HCB is pleased to present an original dialogue between the Mexican photographs of Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and those of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). The two photographers first met in New York in the spring of 1935. Cartier-Bresson had just spent a year in Mexico, while the American had only just started photographing the theater of New York street life. In 1941, fascinated by Cartier-Bresson’s work, Levitt decided to visit the same destination. The two voyages to Mexico turned out to be pivotal points at the beginning of their long careers, during which the two photographers each forged their own respective conceptions of photography.
In 1934, Cartier-Bresson left for Mexico on an ethnographic mission, canceled on route for lack of funding. Enamored by the country, he decided to stay for nine months. “It’s not a curiosity to be visited but a life to live,” he wrote his parents. He met many artists there and exhibited in March 1935 with Manuel Álvarez Bravo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, before leaving for New York.
In April 1935, 21-years-old and having never traveled before, Levitt was enthralled by the Frenchman’s Mexican photographs, which she saw at the exhibition Documentary & Anti-Graphic Photographs presented at the Julien Levy Gallery. Cartier-Bresson’s photos were shown beside those of Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Walker Evans. “Walker Evans was brilliant, truly brilliant, but Cartier-Bresson was a genius!” she liked to say. Meeting the latter two convinced Levitt to take up photography herself. She also helped Cartier-Bresson with his prints since, as she said years later, “he didn’t like printing.”
A few years later, in 1941, Levitt left for Mexico accompanied by Alma Agee, wife of novelist James Agee, and their son Joel. Throughout her long photographic career, this was the only trip abroad she would take. She stayed in Mexico City, exploring areas right at the border of the city. As in New York, she sought a degree of intimacy with the figures in her images. And like Cartier-Bresson, she avoided the picturesque.
Based on the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson’s collection and Helen Levitt’s archives, represented by Galerie Thomas Zander (Cologne), this exhibition presents around sixty prints by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt, as well as documents retracing their respective steps in Mexico. The Curators of the exhibition are: Agnès Sire and Clément Chéroux, director of the Fondation HCB.
The book HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, HELEN LEVITT – MEXIQUE / MEXICO accompanies the exhibition. Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König with texts by Anne Bertrand, Joshua Chuang, Agnès Sire, Clément Chéroux.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt: Mexico
FEBRUARY 14 – APRIL 23, 2023
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson – Paris