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|
|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|
|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|
|Fred Herzog, Crossing Powell, 1984|
|Joel Meyerowitz, Camel Coats, Fifth Avenue, New York, 1975|
|Alex Webb, Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1985|
|Andy Freeberg, from Art Fare, 2011|
|Andy Freeberg, ‘Spinello, New York Pulse’, 2010|
|Andy Freeberg, Sean Kelly Art Basel Miami, 2010|
|Carolyn Drake, Border town, Kyrgystan, 2008|
|Carolyn Drake New Kashgar|
|Trent Parke “Today Cold Water”|
|Jeff Mermelstein, Untitled (10 bill in mouth) New York City,1992|
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 ;)