The photo-essay—a group of pictures about a single subject, usually accompanied by captions—was a staple of photojournalism throughout Cartier-Bresson’s career. This section of the exhibition presents two such essays in abbreviated form, with the photographer’s original captions.
In 1958 Cartier-Bresson undertook an ambitious campaign to photograph the Great Leap Forward, Mao Tse-tung’s intensive program of forced industrialization. He worked steadily for four months in China, and although he was closely monitored by the authorities, he returned with a very substantial body of work, rich in concrete detail. The resulting story was widely disseminated through magazines in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as the United States—usually with splashy color spreads similar to those in the issue of Life presented here. In 1964 nearly 50 photographs made in 1958 appeared in Cartier-Bresson’s small paperback book China: Photographs and Notes on Fifteen Months Spent in China, but otherwise the project has received little attention.
The informal style of photographs made with handheld cameras, popularized by magazines, also began to appear in the annual reports of American corporations in these years. Cartier-Bresson welcomed an assignment to illustrate the 1960 annual report of Bankers Trust Company, which granted him access to the inner workings of the company, which otherwise would have been hard to penetrate.
Neither Chinese communism nor American capitalism conformed to Cartier-Bresson’s idea of a just society. Yet he carefully studied specific circumstances and activities and described them patiently, without resorting to rhetorical effect. Only the bosses in his images are regarded with a skeptical eye.