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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