Boys Running Into the Surf at Lake Tanganyika," from around 1930, is
Innovator and Master, Side by Side
In 1932 the young Henri Cartier-Bresson, lately returned from Africa, saw a photograph of African children charging into waves on a beach. “I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks,” he recalled years later. “I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said, ‘Damn it,’ took my camera and went out into the street.” What Cartier-Bresson produced during the next few years, as the curator Peter Galassi once wrote, became “one of the great, concentrated episodes in modern art.”
How much the African photograph actually shaped this work is debatable, but it struck a chord. It epitomized the combination of serendipity and joie de vivre that Cartier-Bresson admired: three naked boys, their silhouettes against white spray and sun-drenched water, making a perfect geometry.