Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour Somerset House January 2013

Another way back when ;o) But not quite last summer...

In January a friend and I decided to take a jaunt up to Somerset house and take in some Cartier Bresson whilst looking at the other 15 photographers on display, these were:

Karl Baden, Carolyn Drake, Melanie Einzig , Andy Freeberg, Harry Gruyaert, Ernst Haas, Fred Herzog, Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, Jeff Mermelstein, Joel Meyerowitz, Trent Parke, Boris Savelev, Robert Walker and Alex Webb.

Curated by William A. Ewing, (name rings a bell having just quoted him on the Out of Focus exhibition which he also curated)  it featured over 75 works by these photographers and 10 previously unseen HCB images.
Not really sure what to expect I went with an open mind, Henri Cartier-Bresson had exclaimed “Colour photography is not up to the mark, prove me wrong!” So this exhibition set out to rebut his claim. I had to ask myself which is best or are they just different?  I felt that the exhibition itself didn't try to push you in one direction or another, it displayed all the imagery and allowed you to make up your own mind.

It is frequently remarked that Bresson dismissed colour photography but he did sometimes use it himself. However he destroyed nearly all of his colour negatives leaving only his B&W for posterity. In an interview asked, "how do you feel about colour photography?" he replied:

"It’s disgusting. I hate it! I've done it only when I've been to countries where it was difficult to go and they said, “If you don't do color, we can't use your things.” So it was a compromise, but I did it badly because I don't believe in it."

"The reason is that you have been shooting what you see. But then there are the printing inks and all sorts of different things over which you have no control whatsoever. There is all the interference of heaps of people, and what has it got to do with true colour?"

He did go on to admit that if the technical problems were overcome he might be more tempted to use it.

History tells us that Robert Frank remarked ‘Black and white are the colours of photography’ but, as the technology improved, photographers began to sense the gap between real life and image.The snobbery towards colour lasted until the late 1970s, when in 1976, John Szarkowski and MoMA recognised the work of William Eggleston, from then on the world of photography was revolutionized.

Much has been said about "the decisive moment" and I guess that HCB became as heartily sick of the label, which he disputed, as I sometimes am. Like poor Robert Capa and his Spanish civil war picture, it doesn't matter what else you say or produce, one thing will always haunt you. No-one seems to know HCB also said  “Time runs and flows and only our death can stop it. The photograph is the guillotine blade that seizes one dazzling instant within eternity.” So could modern technology and contemporary colour photography capture that moment just as effectively?

The photographs exhibited came from various time frames and were not displayed chronologically I guess this was intentional as they seemed to be more matched in content and subject matter, but it didn't help you decide if colour had improved over the ensuing years, you had to judge each on it's merit. Being so long ago I can't remember what was hung where and next to who so I have randomly selected some images from online to illustrate my post and give a flavour of what was on offer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Harlem New York 1947

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Brooklyn New York 1947

San Francisco, 1960 – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson had an eye for the moment and for composition. He saw serious quiet moments and caught the humour in others. He loved to frame his images just so and never cropped.

Ernst Haas New Orleans 1960

Helen Levitt - Cat next to red car, New York - 1973

Harry Gruyaert Belgium Flanders-region- Province Of Brabant 1988

Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, 2009 - Karl Baden
Karl Baden's series reminded me of Lee Friedlander only in colour. In comparison I think I prefer Friedlander.
Reflection, 1958 – Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960
I adored this almost painterly image by Saul Leiter taken in 1960. The muted colours giving it a slow calm atmosphere even if outside was actually in chaos due to the weather.

9/11 – Melanie Einzig
Always astounded by this image as a courier seems to be so unaware or unconcerned about the action behind him. Einzig captured a decisive moment in more ways than one, both the subject and the photographer totally unaware of what would happen next and the dire consequences.

Fred Herzog, Crossing Powell, 1984
Joel Meyerowitz, Camel Coats, Fifth Avenue, New York, 1975
Joel Meyerowitz is a street photographer who I have a soft spot for, he cleverly uses colour to bring his pieces together. This one in particular I love due, once again, to a limited colour palette and also the timing, the steam rising and the shadows on the passersby caught in that split second.

Alex Webb, Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1985
Alex webb does the same thing within this image, it would not be the same if the ball were red and the child in the background sported a green t.shirt. Part luck that it happened and part skill to capture it.

Andy Freeberg, from Art Fare, 2011
Andy Freeberg, ‘Spinello, New York Pulse’, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Sean Kelly Art Basel Miami, 2010
I make no excuses for including three images by Andy Freeberg, possibly the most immediately eye-catching images in the exhibition. They made me smile then, I had forgotten about them and I still find them almost hilariously amusing. 

Carolyn Drake, Border town, Kyrgystan, 2008
Part of an ongoing project photographing in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Drake is trying to document the relationship of the people to the land and  to explore how these countries are coping with the economic, ecological and political uncertainty. I think the composition is amazing, I did wonder at first if it was photoshopped! There is so much to look at with interest in the fore and background. The tree dividing the frame to perfection. The colours neither add or detract.

Carolyn Drake New Kashgar 

Trent Parke “Today Cold Water”

Boris Savelev

Jeff Mermelstein, Untitled (10 bill in mouth) New York City,1992
Robert Walker
Robert Walker
Robert Walker embraces colour in all its chaotic glory. It is sometimes difficult to see where reality meets the advertising hoardings in the busy New York Streets.

Apparently HCB once said ‘Colour is for painters’, but I think that many photographers, and not just those included within this exhibition have proved him wrong. They bravely accepted the gauntlet he threw down and were well met at 10 paces at dawn. As with the Out of Focus exhibition I feel my initial reception to this exhibition has changed. I did enjoy it at the time but looking back from the comfort of my PC chair, having the time to reflect on the myriad of images available with only a select few actually appearing online has eased the confusion and image overload I remember from the day itself. Cartier Bresson's black and white images were shown alongside those whom he has influenced and I think they complimented each other rather than rivalled.

In conclusion I think both work,  B&W imagery still has a place but colour can be used to great effect. Sadly the book published alongside this exhibition was sold out by the time I went and as far as I can see has not been reprinted...if anyone has a copy they don't want anymore send me a message ;)




  1. I didn't get the book either. I did buy a Saul Leiter book though. I'd forgotten about Andy Freeberg - reminds me of that recent post on WeAreOCA by Russell.

  2. You see so many photographers in the course of a year that some will invariably slip through the net. Some of the names I read when doing these catch ups I recognised and remembered straight away. Others faded away like badly processed photographs.....