Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of those photographers that from the very first moment you lay eyes on his work, you’ll never forget it. His influence on photography is paramount, making him one of those monumental figures so when a gallery features his work, I have to visit. So this trip saw me in Somerset House looking at the new “Cartier-Bresson: A question of colour” exhibit, which is free to the public and didn’t see me trying to sneak in the side.
William A. Ewing, the man who curated the show and is the ex-director of the Musee de l’Elysee, has really put together one of the best displays anywhere in London currently. The bold exhibit does a great job of placing Cartier-Bresson within the context of colour photography during the 20th century. It is no secret that Cartier-Bresson was rather untrusting of colour photography, as he experimented with the medium in it’s early development. The limitations in terms of its aesthetics and technical aspects, caused Bresson to however, turn his back on it. Despite the negativity from Cariter-Bresson this exhibit emphasises his influence on colour photography and shows how future photographers used this medium to prove the great master wrong.
Cartier-Bresson however, has always been the champion of his field, creating the notion of ‘the decisive moment,” capturing something in the very instant of it happening. When you learn that he used a small 35mm normally equipped with a 50mm lens, with tape wrapped around the body to make it less conspicuous you begin to appreciate the man’s secretive skill. With fast black and white films and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph almost by stealth to capture the events. He was no longer bound by those mammoth 4×5 press cameras or the impractical medium format twin-lens reflex camera, the miniature-format camera gave Cartier-Bresson what he called “the velvet hand and the hawk’s eye.”
There are some rather big names included in this show with the likes of Ernst Haas, Harry Gruyaert, Trent Parke, Jeff Mermelstein, all of whom have been selected because of their relentless commitment to colour photography. When juxtaposing the colour photographs with those in black and white, you are asked to explore the way in which these immensely successful photographers have adapted and adopted the ethos created by Cartier-Bresson.
This immediately becomes obvious when entering, as your greeted with one of the best photographs in the whole show. A small photograph of a lonely woman standing on a Washington street corner taken in 1947. The black and white print gives you a pretty good idea of everything to come as it’s instantly comparable with its neighbouring picture, a Saul Leiter photo of Harlem in 1960. The way both CB and Leiter capture these people in the moment, makes very interesting viewing, as the main subjects seem to be pretty mundane but on looking at the background you notice the true beauty of these photographs.
These comparisons continue to flow as the trends of capturing normalcy at interesting moments continues with Cartier-Besson’s photos of Harlem in 1947. They are easily comparable to the interesting photographs on show by American photographer Helen Levitt.
The striking comparisons between the way Cartier-Bresson captures everyday life with such beauty is just as prominent in Levitt’s “People in the city with posters” or “Children with laundry cart”. These are some of my favourite pictures in the exhibit as they have a nostalgic feeling for me, as I see similar sites to the ones I experienced when living in Bedford-Stuyversant, especially with the kids playing with the laundry cart.
Though the exhibition is not done, as it continues to pull out sensational pieces, such as the inclusion of Jeff Mermelsteins work. The way Mermelstein is able to capture insanity and the strange in a few great photos is fascinating. The exhibited photographs “Untitled ($10 bill in mouth)” (1992) and “Untitled Red Puddle” (1995) both give a striking truthful insight into the craziness of NYC.
Though personally, the works of the master Cartier-Bresson stand alone, as they brilliantly portray downtrodden mid century America, in which genius moments of both nothing and everything seem to appear. Cartier-Bresson, is able to transfix viewers into a senseless gaze, while looking at photographs representing everyday life, something so influential at the time and a trait every single photographer in this exhibit has continued with.
The way all of these photographers approach the street is astounding as they’re highly voracious hunger for the usual and unusual is simply beautiful to look at. Then when you take everything in and combine everything on show you are left with a great and comprehensive look at street photography and its early beginnings, resulting in a must see!