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To JAN. 9, 2000

“Tete a Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson” is a little like a video of Mark McGwire’s best catches, or a CD of Pink Floyd’s best dance tunes, or a festival of Christopher Walken’s most romantic screen roles. Sure, there are a few good moments, but you also get the gnawing feeling that a lot is missing. For Cartier-Bresson, quite possibly the best action photographer ever, portraiture seems quite limiting. His famous guidepost is “the decisive moment”—that fleeting split second when everything in the viewfinder moves into perfect harmony. (Cartier-Bresson’s skill in identifying that moment led him to pioneer the darkroom technique of printing all the way to the sprockets of his 35mm negatives; now a cliche, that trick proved that his pulsing, crowded images were made from one exposure, not a pastiche.) If the sedentariness of portraiture sets severe limits, at least Cartier-Bresson infused many of his posed shots with a pleasing degree of motion and happenstance. Cartier-Bresson cleverly distracted some of his sitters (including William Faulkner, Henri Matisse, and Saul Steinberg) by introducing pets into the frame. With others, he gave them a task (Alfred Stieglitz cleaned his eyeglasses, Martin Luther King Jr. sifted through a stack of papers) or had them engage in conversation. Each ploy had the same effect: It allowed the master of the decisive moment to find it, without the resistance of his subject. On view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.daily, to Sunday, Jan. 9, 2000, at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th & F Sts. NW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Louis Jacobson)