'You'd have to be dead not to feed off the energy contained within this exhibition'
Alastair Sooke, The Daily Telegraph
The first study visit of the new year and the chance to join folks from the newly formed Thames Valley regional group of OCA photographers at the Cartier-Bresson : A question of colour exhibition at Somerset House in London. This is a multi-function venue, plus ice rink, which provides gallery space for various art shows and had dedicated four rooms to this exhibition. The objective was to showcase ten HC-B photographs which had never been exhibited in the UK before alongside seventy five images from fourteen internationally recognised artists who worked in colour, eschewed by HC-B himself apparently on the grounds of its technical (at the time) and aesthetic limitations, but followed his ethos of capturing the ”decisive moment”. I felt that there was some very wide interpretation of this in many of the pictures shown and there was to me sometimes the lack of a ‘decisive’ element.
Exhibition curator William E Ewing encapsulated the reason for the exhibition perfectly when he said "My proposition is simple: take the ethos of the decisive moment, and look at how colour photographers have actually fared. Put differently, if we take Cartier-Bresson's scepticism about colour photography as a challenge, how convincing is the response?" HC-B is pitted against overwhelming numerical odds as well as having pictures shown that are drawn from lesser known examples of his work, and his relatively small images are pitched against the likes of the often far larger and imposing works of Boris Savelev, described in The Times as having a ‘cruel grace’, and the very loud work of Robert Walker to name but two. A great deal of what is shown from all artists would fall into the category of street photography of one sort or another and I felt that HC-B’s images were often quite calm and contemplative, certainly compared to the action of Joel Meyerowitz. Some of the work displayed was from photographers of similar age to HC-B, and Helen Levitt, Ernst Haas (whose wonderful vibrant colours I have blogged on before), Saul Leiter and Fred Hertzog were amongst these. Hertzog was not a photographer I have come across before and I loved the beautifully composition and muted colours in images of his native Vancouver in True Story 1959, especially Old Man Main where the sharp, dense shadows fall contrastingly across the faded paintwork. Saul Leiter’s street scenes often made use of reflections and images distorted by refraction through glass, with snow or rain further scrambling the image detail, although a photograph of a girl in a café (Paris 1959) made me think most of parallels with HC-B as it seemed quite a contemplative shot.
Boris Savelev had some imposing images which were printed on gesso coated aluminium and gave an almost lustrous but flat effect with very deep shadow which I thought suited the images of Moscow on show. Interestingly, the images of Dog Moscow, 2007 I have found on the web seem far, far brighter than my recollection of the picture in the gallery, although it was done no favours by its particular hanging location as far as incident light was concerned. From Joel Meyerowitz’s Intersections came Camel Coats 5th Avenue which is just brilliant with two couples walking away into the steam, with the shadows of people further behind falling perfectly on the backs of one of the couples – that one certainly was a decisive moment…
The images most similar to HC-B I thought were those of Helen Levitt. Levitt was a New Yorker, born in 1913, and therefore of a similar generation to HC-B, so maybe it was not surprising that she produced photographs of the city with a similar feel to them, at least to me. Cat next to red car, New York, 1973 shared many of HC-B’s great compositional balance and interest around the frame. Girl in a window, 1972 was a stunning image with the way the bars in the window separate the girl’s eyes from the rest of the face and the reflection in the glass of the buildings opposite add to the feeling of the girl somehow being locked in, although I have no idea whether this was the case. Looking after the exhibition at some of Levitt’s early black and white work there were even greater parallels with HC-B’s photographs and interestingly they have been exhibited side by side in New York recently.
A final artist I’ll comment on is Australian Trent Parke. Parke’s street work shown was from 2006 and examples such as George Street OJ and Today cold water, George Street, Sydney were wonderful mixtures of bright colour and intense shade, but with the figures picked out beautifully in the patches of sunlight. They were very vibrant images, both in terms of their colour saturation and use of shadows and in terms of the movement of the people going about their lives.
So, overall, did HC-B meet the challenge, if indeed that is what it was meant to be, of the colour workers? In my view he certainly did and stood alongside the more numerous colour artists by virtue of his superb compositional skills and balance in the images, although I would have been fascinated to be able to make the comparison between all the artists with a set of black and white prints of the same size from each …