Henri Cartier-Bresson Chose New Jersey. Watch Him Photograph

Christina Knight | February 17, 2023

Man in brown corduroy pantsuit and cap snaps photo of poster-strewn side of church on city street

Henri Cartier-Bresson photographing a storefront church in New Jersey. Screenshot from TV episode of Assignment America. Credit WNET, 1974.

When the most renown photographer of his time was given free reign to choose a subject in 1974, Henri Cartier-Bresson chose New Jersey. Newark’s streets, Trenton’s capitol and prison, West Orange farms, and Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey were among the last places the 66-year-old French cofounder of Magnum Photos would focus his Leica lens upon. Cartier-Bresson was shifting his talents to drawing, and his first exhibit of drawings would take place in New York City the same year.

Asked why he chose New Jersey, Cartier-Bresson answered, “People make such a funny face when you mention New Jersey. It’s where I’m going and seeing what it’s all about. And you see all the tensions in New Jersey; the differences are so strong. It’s a kind of a shortcut for America.” You can hear Cartier-Bresson explain his interest, as well as many choice words and observations about New Jersey and street photography in the TV program that captured this final photography trip.

We can watch him photograph thanks to an invitation from Jaune Evans, a 24-year-old TV producer of the local PBS program Assignment America, produced here at WNET between 1971 and 1975. The collection of images Cartier-Bresson shot then may have gone unseen for 50 years as reported and seen in glimpses in The New Yorker on February 6, but Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic meditation on New Jersey was broadcast to the tri-state population in 1975, when WNET was one of the few TV channels to watch.

See the 1970s Jersey streets and scenes that Cartier Bresson sought out in the half-hour episode, “Cartier Bresson’s New Jersey,” streaming on The American Archive of Public Broadcasting, an archive made possible by a collaboration between the Library of Congress and GBH.

Assignment America: Cartier Bresson’s New Jersey

The whole episode “Why New Jersey?” on the American Archive of Public Broadcasting site includes a transcript of the original February 18, 1975 broadcast. You can play it, above, but watch it on the site for a full screen experience. The archive video record is preceded by the Assignment America episode “Harvey Cox: What In God’s Name?” – hosted by Doris Kearns – and a tease for the Assignment America episode hosted by Maya Angelou, in which she interviews scholar and activist Angela Davis.

Cartier Bresson’s New Jersey follows him at a distance as he photographs. The sun glints off his brown corduroy pant suit as he picks his way across a metal-strewn shipping pier to reach welders, or crosses through Newark’s traffic to study empty storefronts, poster-papered churches and collapsed buildings. The film narration is entirely Cartier-Bresson’s off-camera observations on photography, place and society (he preferred not to be filmed or photographed). He was familiar with American television formats and had directed two specials for CBS News: Southern Exposure (filmed in Mississippi) and Impressions of California in 1970 and 1971. He told a journalist, “For me, photography is sketching. On the other hand, to make a film is to make a speech.”

Of the infamous sprawl of smokestacks and factories in the Garden State, Cartier-Bresson observes:

They just go through on the turnpike and it’s all the industrial areas that they’d like to forget before going to the country or to a weekend resort. All that industry which helps the standard of living to be what it is. People are not prepared to have their standard of living [be] more, how should we say…frugal. If there was more frugality and not so much waste, difficulties wouldn’t be the same. It seems that humanity hasn’t foreseen many things. It’s a detonator sometimes, bang, like this, like a petalled question, and ah! We forget all about it and we’re facing the precipice.

Cartier-Bresson recognized a precipice when he saw one. He directed documentaries during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, photographed the end of China’s Civil War in 1949 and during the early 1940s, spent more than two years in German prisoner of war camps, which he eventually escaped. For more background on Cartier-Bresson and his work, explore the Fondation Henri-Bresson site.

For more on New Jersey, we recommend programs by our sibling station NJ PBS. Other WNET archive programming like Black Journal is also streaming on The American Archive for Public Broadcasting.

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