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|Description||Bresson at MoMA and Elsewhere
You probably aware that there a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Henri Cartier Bresson at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, until June 28th. A few ancillaries:
There a fine show review by the admirable Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker called "Picture Perfect" that you can read online. Crisp, short, rich as chocolate, and one of the few appraisals I read in recent years that isn hagiographic. Critic Schjeldahl takes a rather dim view of the master. Although that is in a sense a very traditional take the old fashioned stance of art critics was to be patronizing of photography whatever else they did he makes some astute points and digs up a couple of wonderful quotes. The essay is one of those rare ones that both an opposing view and, in its own way, right. Recommended read.
The new show catalog by MoMA curator Peter Galassi, , is now available. book, or if you are new to him, I still recommend the big monograph , which we are very lucky to still have in print. If that too steep for you, I very much enjoyed , ten bucks and cheap at twice the price. Good stuff.
Finally, although it brings up less than pleasant memories of his rather daffy interview of Henri himself (which I reviewed here), Charlie Rose has interviewed Martine Franck, Henri widow and the co founder of his Foundation, which provided most of the prints for the MoMA show. The interviewed aired last night, as far as I can tell. I can make the Charlie Rose website work none of the links function for me but maybe you have better luck.(Thanks to numerous readers)
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Featured Comment by Eric Rose: "Charlie Rose interview can be seen here."
Thanks for your mention of the HCB MOMA exhibition and the New Yorker review. I attended the opening of the show and read the article. It is an interesting contrarian piece.
So much of my life has been influenced by the work and spirit of HCB view of the world. I first began making photographs at the age of 16 after receiving a book by HCB, "The Face of Asia" while in a hospital bed with a high school football injury. I went to Paris in 1975 and then to live full time for more than 20 yrs., largely because of a spirit I found there that was embodied in the work of people like HCB, Doisneau, Boubat, Kertesz, and Brassai.
I worked as a printer for a stint at the famed photography lab in Paris, "Picto" where HCB prints were printed,fake bvlgari cicladi necklace, and used to look occasionally at his contact sheets kept in a special room at the lab during my lunch hour. When HCB would come in to sign his collector prints it always felt like a blessed moment.
I had many memorable encounters with Henri up until his death. The man that printed his images for more than 30 yrs., Voya Mitrovic, is one of my closest friends and prints my work today.
I feel that what was missing in the New Yorker piece about HCB work is something that goes way beyond photography. HCB work for me has always touched on something fundamental about a view of the world and life a faith in what can be his images inform of us the notion that if we keep our eyes and hearts open, there is a "Cartier" diamond in the rough waiting to be seen in the common moments of daily life. It touches on the notion that if we are open to it, each day when we walk out the door our life can be changed and for me this notion has always come close to something almost more spiritual than photographic. Thanks, Peter
When I started photography five years ago as a serious hobby, I was not aware of Henri Cartier Bresson or Robert Frank. I was not institutionalized to unquestionably value their work based on reputation alone, and it was simply their photos that placed them high on my list of favorite photographers. Frank "The Americans" is one of the most remarkable photographic essays I seen, and its technical deficiencies will forever sabotage quality supposed reliance on evolving modernity.
Anyway, I found Peter Schjeldahl appropriation of Frank words to undercut Cartier Bresson entertaining, and to a degree, understandable. Still, I am struggling to accept the critique on Bresson, one often directed at Elliott Erwitt as well, that his abnormally keen talent to manifest the aesthetic failed somewhat to extend beyond nothing more than a mere visual patina, clever and intriguing, but "numbing the heart." I appreciate that this subjective,replica bvlgari classic necklace, and I am not in position to deny (though perhaps refute) another person view of Ansel Adam work as cold.
However, this raises questions about the purpose of photography, and to what extent it has or acts just as an illustrative allure. I can only recount from my own experience, but during the past five years, coming upon Bresson works (sometimes initially oblivious to his involvement) seldom left me feeling as though I just suffered through a Linda Ronstadt cover that neutered a perfectly acceptable Elvis Costello or Warren Zevon original. But then, maybe my perception is stunted, swindled by a compositional glory that blinds me of the deeper search. Yet, I can still delineate the visceral between a Bresson and a Don McCullin; it just that I don demand synchronization of style to whirl up deep thoughts. Again, blame my apparent simplicity.
In a videotaped interview, Garry Winogrand argued that photos don usually tell a story, as we really don know the context immediately before or after the exposure. His characteristically provocative claim is undoubtedly debatable, but aspects within are worthy of consideration. Going back to Frank "The Americans," the viewer is typically positioned to reach a viewpoint, one devoid of sentiment and awash in scrutiny; the disillusionment. Yet, individually, where do some of those photos stand? By page 30, Frank could have inserted a picture of babies playing with puppies in a garden, and ominous interpretations would still arise invariably from some.
On another photography site, a member commented about how sinister Frank subjects appeared, citing the mostly hidden Navy recruiter with feet on the desk and the lurking cowboy in the New Mexico bar. Yet, what do we actually know about these people? How should we judge them, or should we judge them at all? It reminds me of the Sex Pistols "I Wanna be Me," with Rotten blurting out: "I got you in the camera / I got you in my camera / A second of your life / Ruined for life." Not all that is good requires a cause, and not all that has a cause is immune from its own platitudes, if not dangerous deceptions.
Bresson case is possibly hurt, because his output, to some extent, reflects his wealthy blessings, but then wouldn this be his most sincere path; after all, such frivolity didn really demean the value of Jacques Henri Lartigue precocious offerings either (in regards to Bresson, Schjeldahl suggests as much himself). And it is the authenticity under the aesthetic that provides the weight, irrespective of the cause, or lack of such. For the sake of argument, though, let say it was only the lines, geometry, and the beauty that compelled Bresson to photograph the four Kashmiri women perched seemingly mystical atop a hill. I found it moving, without form for its own sake distracting at all, and isn this what ultimately matters?
I saw a Cartier Bresson exhibition in Tokyo nearly three years back, and now that I am living in NYC, I will happily attend the MOMA exhibition.
IMO Schjeldahl got it backwards in one part of his review, through what looks like an art history error. Cartier Bresson didn subject photography to classicism in the mode of Poussin. He stepped out of modernism, not classicism. He awakened and refreshed the cool and often angular modernism of his time in photography, painting, sculpture, architecture with the immediate on the spot humanism that 'street photography' was so suited to capture.
Schjeldahl is right to recognize HCB's passion for 'geometrie,' but it was a modernist geometry employed in the service of lively human curiosity. His curiosity looked, saw, and captured, that's all. It stopped short of either sentimentality or social commentary. We may love Ronis, Doisneau, etc., for their superior representation of sentiment, but that just wasn't HCB's place in photography. We can also appreciate stronger social and political commitments among other Magnum founders,diva fake bulgari, and can relish social commentaries through irony (as in The Americans). But again those weren't HCB's roles in the history of photography. He was just what he said, a hunter of the coincidences of form and feeling that have no better name than 'decisive moments.' They really not throwbacks to Classicism.
I have to agree with Peter Turnley on the Schjeldahl article. Peter Turnley last paragraph puts it quite well. I think the lack of elevation that the Frank quote speaks to, and that Schjeldahl attempts to explain (not as well, in many words, as Frank in so few), is a strong unifier, where life is life, and beautiful moments abound, irrespective of political or social significance. This makes Cartier Bresson, well, different from a lot of other photographers, who try to convey meaning beyond aesthetics.
I am not prepared to say which method is better, more important, or anything along those lines, but I am prepared to say that I think the flattening of many moments considered to be of differing import into a more or less equivalent aesthetic package is a significant political achievement, really, and well in line with the surrealism and socialism that were Cartier Bresson aesthetic and political inclinations. Schjeldahl likes Cartier Bresson photographs of leisure and pleasure best, and that is his right, yet with this he misses the broad strength of the unified hand, its capacity to pluck those "Cartier in the rough " that Peter Turnley so eloquently describes in his comment.
"He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition." The problem of Cartier Bresson's art is the conjunction of aesthetic classicism and journalistic protocol: timeless truth and breaking news.
Sorry but I don get how the New Yorker reviewer gets this impression from HCB work. Frankly most of us would do well to achieve beauty and composition in our photography. He terse to the point of being reductive, and seems to prefer to nitpick the questions on offer as if they merely reveal fault in the questioners themselves.
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