Henri Cartier-Bresson: a question of Colour @ Somerset House

HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON: a question of colour

Somerset House used to be a government record office; it has however, shred it’s official cloak and become a cultural centre. In a series of rooms, known as The Terrace Rooms, the photographic exhibition “Cartier-Bresson: a question of colour” is being held. The title intrigues me because H.C-B is well known as a black and white photographer with a somewhat guarded attitude towards colour. In his day, colour photography suffered from technical limitations which is one reason why H.C-B never felt at ease with colour and yet he “remained sceptical that it would ever achieve the expressive heights of black and white.” This did not mean that he never experimented with colour because he did and moreover, he encouraged others to do so.

This exhibition is really about the challenge made by some of the best photographers to the suggestion that black and white can never be bettered. Colour photography has arisen owing to the technical possibilities made available by a constantly improving technology and with the emergence of digital, colour can be fine tuned according to the photographer’s intent.

There are a number of H.C-B’s black and white prints on show and alongside these, colour images by other photographers are hung sometimes reflecting the content of H.C-B’s work but interpreting it differently. There are many more photographs by colour photographers than there are black and whites by H.C-B and it is not easy to draw conclusions around the colour versus black and white discourse. What the exhibition shows is that colour has taken over completely from black and white which is now regarded as a specialist medium; the exhibition however does not prove conclusively that colour deserves it’s elevated status.

The catalogue contains a couple of essays while at the opening of the published catalogue, there is a quote from Robert Walker’s “Color is Power” (2002) who says that the last quarter of the twentieth century will be regarded as the golden age of colour. I can not help but feel that colour can only reach maturity through digital imagery. Robert Walker does have something interesting to say about photography that seems pertinent to this exhibition; we are faced with a glut of images continually accelerating in number yet good photography can be “an act of defiance and confrontation against the blinding impact” of this. Walker points out that the poet Robert Frost has described poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion” and the same might be said about photography.

However, there is another subject raised here and that is the notion of the “decisive moment”, an analogy of the photographic process that H.C-B is well known for; it implies that the photograph needs to be taken at a particular moment in time. However, this statement can lead to a misunderstanding of H.C-B’s work since it was not a statement he favoured; he made photographs spontaneously, on the fly, as his early book “Images de la Sauvette” implies. The second essay at the beginning of the book by Miriam Rosen (a translation from the French) goes into this misunderstanding in some detail. The original statement “the decisive moment” came from an early eighteenth century priest, Cardinal de Retz, and was used casually at first but later more seriously; another reference was to Kipling’s “unforgiving minute” from his well known poem “If”. It was given further import when Rodin hand wrote it for the cover of a book. Misunderstanding over the significance of this phrase is rather like the black border surrounding Cartier-Bresson’s photographs that appears as that the whole negative was printed and not cropped; nowadays the black border has become an aesthetic frame and does not necessarily mean the full frame has been used. For Cartier-Bresson this was not a theory but a convenience that showed the whole image was being used and not cropped afterwards to assert a meaning that might be considered contrived.

What happened was that Cartier-Bresson’s mention of “the decisive moment” became blown out of all proportion as it was adopted by aspiring photographers. In fact, there is an ancient concept of kairos which comes from early Greek philosophy which refers to the appropriateness of a moment combining action and time. His moment was not concerned with merely recording a moment in time that recorded a certain occurrence rather this moment was of a more fleeting nature. When asked about his relationship to the camera, he once replied that “the Leica is a sketchbook, a psychoanalyst’s couch, a machine gun, a big, hot kiss, an electromagnet, a memory, the mirror of memory”. In fact, Cartier-Bresson gave as many as 45 different ideas which might have been used including the “given moment’ and the “lost moment”. Cartier-Bresson apparently became irritated by the “decisive moment” tag since he saw in different ways such as the Surrealistic approach of letting “the photographic lens look into the rubble of the unconscious and of chance.” Towards the end of his life, he made another statement … “Time runs and flows and only our death can stop it. The photograph is the guillotine blade that seizes one dazzling instant within eternity.”

During the exhibition, there are quotes by Cartier-Bresson yet also by the other photographers alongside whose work Cartier-Bresson’s fine prints are placed. Hence, there is quite a bit of text to absorb along with the photographs yet it is brief and relates directly to the practice of photography.

I liked this exhibition for it’s willingness to engage directly with the medium of photography rather than merely show a group of photographs by well known photographers. It does not try to give a definite answer to questions concerning the value of colour versus black and white but leaves the viewer to reflect on the differences between the two approaches; it is a debate that is likely to continue since they are both very different and in a sense beyond compare. H.C-B’s view may be dated but his understanding of photography is still pertinent and can not be dismissed.