Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective @ The Pompidou Centre

H.C-B, as he was known sometimes, is a photographer whose work I am well acquainted with. To describe him as the greatest photographer of the twentieth century if not of photography, would be to simplify photography as a medium and ignore it’s many approaches. Certainly H.C-B is one of the great photographers of all time yet what matters in photography is photographs as the people who made them are not always going to be around; H.C-B died in 2004. One of his early influences was the artist Andre Lhote who wrote “Treatise on Landscape and the Human Figure“, a landmark work. Lhote told H.C-B that his photographs owed much to his study of painting. H.C-B however wanted to break away from the “doctrinaire” atmosphere of the art diaspora and discover the world with his camera. For him, Kertesz the Hungarian photographer was his “poetic wellspring” yet he never lost his interest in art and continued to draw. H.C-B was not a fan of the nihilistic approach of much American photography which seems to be exploring personal neuroses and leading nowhere. A book, “Zen and the art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel is one that H.C-B has referred to often; it’s philosophy of hitting the target is one that measures up with making photographs, the ability to be totally present in what one is doing. The documentary approach can be misleading if one forgets that one also needs to “make” a photograph rather than simply “take” one. There is a need for an “objective witness” as the American MOMA director John Szarkowski pointed out. In an interview in 1991, H.C-B remarked, “Very few people who take photos are visual. They don’t look. They record but thats’ not looking! Its very hard to look, to size up proportions. Its’ a constant interrogation, an intense pleasure for the eye, a marvellous elation.” Dangers exist in way that the freedom granted to photographers by the Press who use their work can become a prison when images are predetermined by the need to satiate a public and sell newspapers. Aestheticism can become a trap which was an early experience with his colour photography. Are we what we eat or what we excrete?   Many of these thoughts come from an interview H.C-B gave to La Monde in 1974 and which later appeared in translation in The Guardian newspaper of the UK. In fact, he gave a number of interviews to the French newspaper La Monde that went on to be published in the UK. Geometry plays an important part in H.C-B’s work. Of it he said, in a 1991 interview, that “Geometry is a recognition of a certain existing order. Its’ there, its’ not something you impose.” H.C-B did not believe photography could be learnt. He was also wary of being labelled in any way; as Robert Capa, a fellow photographer and founder of Magnum is reported to have remarked to him after an exhibition of H.C-B’s work “If you get labelled a photojournalist you’ll become mannered. Be a photojournalist!” Another reminder of the complex relationship between art and documentary that lies at the belly of the photographic medium.   People at times tried to discourage H.C-B from continuing with photography; they thought he should return to art.

entrance to the George Pompidou Centre

entrance to the George Pompidou Centre

On the way to the exhibition, I recall something H.C-B says about visiting museums, regarding them as little treats to himself along the way. I can not help but reflect on my own bourgeois status and how I am gorging myself on visual delights through the Open College of the Arts. There is a need to make work not always easy to do within the college guidelines. I loose my way going to the Pompidou Centre. A couple of texts from Stan whom I had met a couple of days previously, inform me that he has arrived, met others and is waiting in the foyer. When I arrive some 25 minutes late, there is no sign of him and no more texts to let me know where he might be. I have informed him my mobile is out of credit so I can’t respond but he may not have read the message or just become absorbed by the group! The others are not due until 2 p.m. while Eileen, who has arranged the whole trip, is not due until 3 p.m. We are meant to be meeting back in Montmatre at 4.30  which I have pointed out already does not allow enough time! There is a fantastic bookshop here. I thought I might see the others there but there is no sign of them. They are probably in the exhibition already or waiting to enter as there is a 45 minute queue, an indication of just how popular H.C-B is some ten years after his death. One feels it is a public interest that will grow!
escalator up to the 6'th floor gallery

escalator up to the 6’th floor gallery

Eventually, we find our way to the exhibition on the 6’th floor. While many exhibitons of H.C-B over recent years have stressed the unity of his vision, this retrospective takes a wider look and considers his work as different stages; H.C-B is no longer around to print the show! The first room shows not just his first photos but also paintings by H.C-B including a little collage he made For love and against industrial work, a reminder that he was to refuse his parents wish to go into the family business. Some of his early work reflects Atget yet H.C-B denied being consciously influenced by him; it was something that was pointed out to him later on. “Life is full of coincidences!” H.C-B argued yet it is likely that H.C-B who saw Atget’s original prints was not only struck by them but geared into action also particularly in his photos of Rouen made around 1929. In Africa, H.C-B wanted to avoid the stereotypical approach of local customs and colour that drew attention to the exotic; instead, he adopted a Modernist approach of high viewpoints and a focus on movement.
entrance to the H.C-B exhibition

entrance to the H.C-B exhibition

The photograph that is used to advertise this exhibition was made in 1935 by George Hoyningen-Huene in New York. H.C-B was trying to break out as a photographer with a new vision influenced by Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus as well as American friends. In one photograph, “Italie, 1933” H.C-B has broken with ordinary rules of composition and constructed the photograph not around a central point but from the edges where the details are.
 Surrealism under Andre Breton and his “objective chance” was other influence. Another photo of H.C-B also made in 1935 and in New York, this time by George Platt Lynes shows him with his hand held over his head in a more receptive, less affirmative state of mind. One approach to composition that H.C-B adopted was to find a scene that interested him and in which he could find a vantage point to wait for action to emerge.
inside the H.C-B exhibition

inside the H.C-B exhibition

Is the famous image “Derriere la gare, Saint Lazare, Paris, 1933” only so well known because it demonstrates the decisive moment better perhaps than any other H.C-B image? The early 1930’s seems to have produced some of his most seminal work such as “Livorne,Tuscany,Italy,1933” where a man’s face is replaced by a knotted curtain that seems to comment on his state of mind while reading the newspaper we see before him; it might just as well be a comment on the viewer’s mind! Another image, “Marseille, France, 1932” is interesting perhaps because apart from the composition, it is a photograph of 2 coloured men. The racial divide however was not to assume a lot of importance until after WW2. Sometimes critical commentary seems to create it’s own fictions. An example perhaps is the way that critics have emphasised H.C-B’s many photos of the crowd at George V!’s coronation to be a deliberate attempt to turn his back on the monarch, an example of H.C-B’s communist views. In fact, H.C-B must have spent many hours waiting for the monarch during which time he could not help but respond to the audience who like him were waiting. When the monarch did come by, it is probably unlikle that H.C-B had much chance to make a clear image since telephoto lenses were not very common or proficient at that time. Communist publications that used his images were unlikely to use any royal images anyway particularly when there was so much of the crowd to see. Sometimes the commentary is helpful in unravelling the complexities inherent within the composition or just explaining what the photographs were about. For example, the “lost children” photogaphs were all staged for political effect.
the movie part of the exhibition

the movie part of the exhibition

There is a section showing films. H.C-B commented that cinema taught him to see. Of the films he made, one was about The Spanish Civil War and made from an anti-fascist viewpoint. More well known owing to the stills H.C-B made at the time is from 1945 and shows a woman confronting another woman who had denounced her.
H.C-B travelled with his camera being present at the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 (he had met the Mahatma a few hours before his assassination), to China where he photographed the chaos of the end of the Kuomintang also in 1948, and to Russia where he sought to show the ordinariness of life there in contrast to popular reports to the contrary. These photographs were published worlwide in the media of the time. H.C-B was not against colour, it was just rather basic during his working life and while it satisfied popular taste, it did not measure up to the view point of any colour decisions the photographer might make except in a very basic way. If H.C-B was alive today, one feels he would be using colour!
inside the H.C-B exhibition

inside the H.C-B exhibition

In Cuba, around the time of the missile crisis in the early 1960’s, H.C-B covered much of the daily life of Cubans at that time; the magazines however, were more interested in his politically orientated images than those with a more sensitive insight into the country.
Although H.C-B had expressed an earlier suspicion for the exotic, he did photograph Asian dances and married Ratna, a Balinese dancer. A movie, there are in fact a couple from 1956 and 1962, showing him at work give a sense of how H.C-B pounced on his subject almost like a bird of prey! H.C-B also photographed man’s relationship with objects, consumerism in fact; a number of images were made in big shops. A prelude to the work of photographers such as Martin Parr perhaps although even Atget was photographing shop windows! Student riots of the late 1960’s were another subject that concerned him. As the 1970’s came, H.C-B was in his sixties; his approach to photography became more contemplative. He still continued to make images yet also returned to drawing. These latter images reflect not so much a decisive moment but a tiny, fragile one … there is a more relaxed poetic presence. I spent there hours going around this exhibition; it was worth every minute.
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An “Atget Amble” through Montmatre, Paris

I had suggested to Eileen, leading a group of Open College of the Arts students in Paris, that I might offer an Atget walk; “Amano’s Atget Amble” was how I branded it, with the idea to visit places that Atget had featured in his photographs. One can still find them looking pretty much the same though on other occasions, development has taken over and there is little in the way of recognition between the two scenes, past and present.

Eileen agreed and I decided that Montmatre would be the best place to do this though I had not at that point found any of the locations and wondered if I would be actually able to locate more than a couple. However, Atget seems to have chosen fairly obvious locations to photograph and to my surprise I was able to find all five Montmatre locations that appear in Bernice Abbott’s collection of his photographs entitled, “ATGET: Photographer of Paris“, that was published as a photobook in 1930.

We started the walk in the early evening by which time the multitude of tourists that flock there during the day had gone and we were able to move through the streets without obstruction. It was a slow but steady climb along from the Place de Clichy and then up the hill near from the Blanche Metro.

Amano standing in for Atget's door to door salesman (photo by Stan Abramchouk)

Amano standing in for Atget’s door to door salesman (photo by Stan Abramchouk)

We met Rue Lepic and soon after Moulin de la Galette after which we arrived at the first Atget location,the place where he photographed a travelling salesman. This photograph seems slightly out of place with many other Atget photographs because normaly he did not do these kind of portrait location photographs. Interestingly however, Atget’s father whom Atget never really knew since he was orphaned when young, was like the man in this photograph, a door to door salesman. This location might have been difficult if not impossibe  to find but for a couple of ornate flowerpots on the columns of a house in the background of Atget’s photograph; they correspond exactly to the ones that still exist today though are there are obscured from Atget’s view owing to overhanging vegetation. The street has changed in character as one might expect and some building on the left of Atget’s image have gone.

 

Artist and his painting of the popular view of Place du Tertre

Artist and his painting of the popular view of Place du Tertre

 We continued up Rue Lepic and then entered the Place du Tertre which means “a place on a hillock”. This particular square has been here for about 650 years and at first we stopped to see the popular view which includes the Place du Tertre with the Sacre-Coeur in the background. I came across three different postcards of this view as well as a painting.
Amano showing the view of Place du Tertre made by Atget ((photo by Stan Abramchouk))

Amano showing the view of Place du Tertre made by Atget ((photo by Stan Abramchouk))

Atget however seems to have had a more documentary approach to his work and went for a view that encompassed all of the Place du Tertre without the distraction of the Sacre-Coeur in the background; one wonders where he might presently place his camera as a water tower built in the 1930’s now looms in the background. Of course, with the Place du Tertre becoming part of the tourist magnet that is Montmatre, Atget would find it hard to erect his tripod anywhere let alone frame a view of this ancient square presently festooned with the marquees of restaurants to say nothing of artisans lining the pavements and forbidding one to photograph either them or their art work.

 

outside 18, Rue Mont Cenis (photo courtesy Eileen O'Raffferty)

outside 18, Rue Mont Cenis (photo courtesy Eileen O’Raffferty)

Our next stop was beyond the Place du Tertre where the water tower now stands, a colossus rising out of the Square Claude Charpentier. This area was redeveloped between the wars and so little chance of seeing the house that Atget photographed which in his time was looking dilapidated; perhaps this was the reason he made the picture since he knew the area would soon change. We were able to see where this building once stood as Atget noted it down on the original gelatin as 18, Rue de Mont Cenis; at number 18 nowadays, there is a 5 storey building on the front of which is some writing informing us that the building was erected in 1927.

Amano with the Atget photo showing the lower end of Rue des Saules (photo by Stan Abramchouk)

Amano with the Atget photo showing the lower end of Rue des Saules (photo by Stan Abramchouk)

 Our final destination was Rue des Saules. Henri Cartier-Bresson in his younger days had painted the top end of the street while Atget some years previously had photographed half way down where it meets the Rue Saint-Vincent making a T junction. The road has been widened and a wall removed, pavements extended while houses have come and gone although a  doorway from Atget’s photograph is still visible on the left; the wall at the end of the road however still stands and has not been altered since Atget’s day. The tree that grew behind it has gone to be replaced by another smaller one. It was not easy to see Atget’s point of view from here owing to the cars parked along the road.
Our walk ended yet we continued through Montmatre to our restaurant. I was however, back a few days later to see if I might find the final location included in Bernice Abbott’s selection. Atget was not someone who tried to hide his tracks and it was not long before I found myself in front of La Bonne Franquette, a cafe with an obvious history displayed on a placard outside. In Atget’s day it was known as Le Franc Buveur yet one can still recognise it as the same place owing to the layout of the door and windows along with the incline of the street. Artists who came here included Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and of course, Eugene Atget, though one might well wonder what the reaction would have been had anyone from those times referred to Atget as an artist.
Another Atget subject; a cafe where famous artists once met

Another Atget subject; a cafe where famous artists once met

 Revisiting Atget’s locations is fascinating as it peels away levels of history and one starts to see the way in which Montmatre has changed and not changed over the years. It also gives an insight into the way this photographer worked while going about his business making “Documents for Artists.” He remained virtually unknown during his lifetime but is now heralded as a Surrealist and one of the greatest photographers of the Twentieth Century.
 

VERAMENTE at Foundation Cartier-Bresson

outside the Foundation

outside the Foundation

His reflections are not limited to a mere interest in capturing the appearance of the territories that he photographs, nor are they limited to a visual project in which the image is only understood as an aesthetic object. Rather, his work encompasses a way of thinking that incorporates the reality of the territory as it has been experienced, and also entails a reappraisal of perception through photography …
Marta Daho from “Through the Empty Room”, an essay in the Veramente catalogue.

writing on wall outside a gallery room

writing on wall outside a gallery room

I manage to obtain the catalogue to this exhibition beforehand. Looking through the photographs which begin in 1970, the notion of a much simpler life emerges. This work is said to come under the landscape genre and while there are some landscapes of the traditional kind, buildings feature in most images giving some sense of formality (Guidi had studied architecture when younger).

There are a number of diptychs (of which more later) in which almost the same image is repeated such as water flowing under a bridge (this includes a second diptych where the water is not under the arches of the bridge but within it’s vicinity), the way the sunlight falls being the obvious difference between the two.

Seeing this collection of images blind, I wonder if this might be a location which the photographer has grown up in or just knows well; it might of course be images from many different places (which in fact is the case though I do not discover this until the end of the catalogue; neither are they just from Italy but around Europe including Russia).

One image does touch me, that of an elderly woman peering out through the shutters of an upstairs window, apparently in some kind of discourse with a grey-haired man below who turns his head to respond to her.

The series of images end with four very similar photographs of grass growing through concrete; is this Guidi’s vision of nature or landscape, one which is somehow subservient to the man made constructions around it? The photographs themselves exude a warm calm; they are not grab shots but carefully considered images.

I don’t know what the title Veramente refers to; my rough translation is “true view!” which is probably incorrect.

opening photos refer to both looking and reading

opening photos refer to both looking and reading

In my second perusal, of the catalogue I notice that the first section of images, all in black and white, is about looking also reading! Are the couple in this first group the photographer’s parents by whom the photographer stands? The photo I noticed of the elderly couple that comes later in the book, might be the same people. The sense is of a photographer making an intimate glimpse of his home village.

So what is this body of work about? I turn to the texts at the end of the book!

Marta Daho writes about the view of landscape that emerged after the War; “the concept of the landscape gradually mutated, veering towards a new focus on spaces and territories that had previously been deemed undefined or marginal, rather than more canonical sites. Vacant lots, terrain vagues, and industrial sites  ” which is what might also be referred to as Edgelands, a contemporary term. This approach was defined by the new topographist photographers from the United States and by whom Guidi was obviously influenced. Guidi is concerned with “oblique between-the-lines references to the epicentre of his research: the enigma of the intangible emptiness that embraces the spectator and draws him into the representation.” By taking Guidi to be a story-teller, I was clearly missing the premise of his work; I could see space was important and it is obvious that he is breaking from more a formalist approach which is not uncommon these days.

It is not superfluous to emphasise that Guido Guidi belongs to a generation of artists who rebelled against monumentality and expressed their rejection of the spectacle in its myriad forms.” continues Marta Daho who says that Guidi opposes “the fossilised, static notion according to which artworks are possessed of an essence, of an eternal, untouchable truth” since what makes an image worthwhile exists not in the frame but between author, work and spectator.

Guidi uses a larger format cameras (6by7cm, 13by18cm, 20by25cm, 40by45cm), as well as the smaller 35mm( 24by36mm) earler on, and was inspired by Walker Evans whose “qualitative dimension and stylistic restraint” he grasped. Guidi also studied drawing and architecture and for whom photography is “where two entities meet: a kind of threshold that triggers encounters and identification between one side of the lens and the other …

When one actually sees photographs as photographs in a gallery rather than as reproductions in a book, one starts to see them differently; it is not as though they are imbued with aura but they are now open to examination, inspection rather than perusal. Guidi’s images are presented as art objects and live up to that notion as they are fine objects.

Fondation Cartier-Bresson first floor gallery-1742

Guidi’s photographs are placed around the gallery in the order they appear in the book; however, here there is not so much compulsion to view them in a linear way since some are placed above the other, some appear in groups and so on.

One certainly feels the craftmanship that has gone into the making and printing here yet I can not help but see that some of the images (e.g. Kalingrad, Russia, 08.1994) seem to lack the fine detail one expects from this kind of work.

The colours show the restrained palette of faster films such as 200 and 400 ISO; this helps to reduce the impact of the images while enhancing their delicacy.

I enjoy Guidi’s use of the diptych. It enables him to comment on the image; the same scene can be rendered differently as in the case of Venezia, Italie, 1984 where identical images reveal an underpass in both black and white and then in colour. In “Chatillon, Italie, 15.09.1982” one sees two identical black and white images but for the objects they contain and the degree of contrast used. Guido was influenced by Italian Neo-Realism, a conceptual approach.

Sometimes the diptych is extended and multiple images are used alongside each other. In the case of “Cesena, Italie, 19.06.2007” showing a shadow falling on water beneath a bridge and “Cesena, Italie, 12.07.2007” showing a clump of grass growing out of concrete with a shdaow moving across it, we are treated to four images of each. In “Preganziol, Italie, 02.1983” a shadow moves across a room (a diagram tells us about the way the images were made) shown in 10 images.

Daho writes, “The ideas of repetition and the importance of the interval as expressed in both space and time were present from his very first images and did not dissappear when he shifted to using a large format camera … trying to surprise the very act of seeing at the instant that preceedes recognition, of capturing it before there is a chance for connection with pre-existing knowledge.” An impossible task!

What makes Guidi an outstanding photographer is his ability to question the medium of photography. Daho writes, “… photographically speaking he takes a step back, reveals the device, and invites the spectator to engage in an act of self-awareness through the contemplative experience, in an attempt to rethink photographic practice from a dailogical and intercommunicative perspective.

In one photograph, “Ronta, Italie, 09.09.1981”, we see him reflected in a mirror, standing beside a large camera behind which is an open window; it takes a little time for us to adjust to the space the photographer has created. The next three images, all from the same location, are perhaps the hardest to take in as they are largely abstract black and white images. These four images occupy the far wall at the end of the first gallery.

Much of the work might be described as documentary as well as landscape yet using composition in a less obvious way gives them an artistic feel; there is no obvious message here.

view of gallery 2 with stand for books

view of gallery 2 with stand for books

There is another gallery above the first. This room contains no black and white and more portraiture. Is there a thread to the sequence of images which is not chronological. Guidi seems to be probing the medium, playing with it and sharing his discoveries with us.

The writing on the wall at the exhibition’s entry certainly makes one warm to Guidi as a human photographer; “Guido Guidi has no desire to be a dominant figure. He does not seek to control a space; he does not impose himself on what he photographs. He takes part in it, identifies with it.

I can not help but remember Cartier-Bresson’s work when considering this work which is being shown in the Foundation Cartier-Bresson; Cartier-Bresson’s work is artistic yet immediately recognisable as such. With Guidi one needs to be a bit more contemplative and he does not reward one as much as Cartier-Bresson yet Guidi does encourage one to question the nature of the image, to stand back a little from the “society of the spectacle” and this is surely something worthwhile.

surveillance equipment at the Foundation - you can be seen in the galleries even if no one is there!

surveillance equipment at the Foundation – you can be seen in the galleries even if no one is there!

Fields of Battle; Lands of Peace @ Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

"Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace" exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

“Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace” exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

I meet fellow student, Stan Dickinson, in the Luxemborg Gardens; after a drink we walk over to an exhibition he has noticed at the eastern entrance. Called “Fields of Battle; Lands of Peace” is a group of large colour prints that hang high from the railings of the park, so high infact that the bottom of the photographs are level with one’s eyes. Is this conscious attempt to make one look up to the images and hence possibly encourage one to rever them or just keep them out of the way of prying fingers. It may of course have been a simple decision to keep them in the middle of the railings (they are equidistant from the top and the bottom) or might be related to the way the photographs have been hung.
The massive size of the prints is impressive yet one recalls the adjunctive “make the photograph big and then you can call it art!” In fact, these images do not seem very well crafted since the tones appear rather dull, partially a result of excessive contrast. This looks like work made by a large format camera with colour negative film. However, it might have been scanned for digital reproduction when colour castes particularly those of woodland scenes, could have been removed.
"Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace" exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

“Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace” exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

Of course, what is important here is not so much the aesthetics which tend to occupy a somewhat subservient place in photography, but the content of the images. Context is all important and the captioning essential to drawing out the meaning of the images.
The photographs illustrate places of importance during the First World War. Not only do captions explain this but there are even related photographs from the time printed much smaller and placed below their much larger relations.
"Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace" exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

“Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace” exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

We learn of mud that drowned both men and horses, a compass found in a wood that certified the death of an officer reported missing in action, trenches that still stand but are now engulfed in woodland, peacefully quiet landscape views where fierce and bloody battles were once fought, farmland where troops once battled now returned to proper use … I did not make a detailed account of the different kind of images used but the range is impressive as is the message of this exhibition which is perhaps not as straightforward as it purports to be.
Essentailly, it is remembering a war that was fought 100 years ago with the historical associations outweighing any anti-war rhetoric of which there is none other than the text detailing the kind of conditions that would have been suppressed during the time this war was fought. One is struck by the inherent beauty of these images in spite of the terrifying echoes they contain; the combination of these two qualities evokes the sublime.
"Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace" exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

“Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace” exhibition Boulevard Saint Michel, Luxemborg Gardens

Stan and I both agree about the poor look of the images. Is this making a statement of some kind? Can not the photographer be allowed to make his images a little seductive in spite of their content? Perhaps we are being discouraged from seeing these images as spectacles, from indulging in the unreal, when what is actually on show here is the horror of war and the return to peace.