Victoria Cooper+Doug Spowart Blog

August 26, 2011 HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON Opens @ QAG

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 Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition opens at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Can you get into trouble at an exhibition opening – doing what Henri did: Taking photos, that is?

HCB Panorama instalation

The opening of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s exhibition The Man, The Image and The World at the Queensland Art Gallery was an event and an experience befitting the celebrated position that HCB holds within the genre of documentary photography. The exhibition was opened by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who spoke of a personal love interest in HCB’s work. The reason being, that her husband had given her the image, On the banks of the Marne, France 1938, as a gift while courting her in the 1980s.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh opens the HCB

The occasion was auspicious by the presence of swishy attired, mainly older people unknown to the writer who must have been art gallery members and patrons. Scattered here and there were photographers, who to me, also seemed of the older age group. It has been a long – long, time since an exhibition of photography such as this has gained entry to the QAG/GOMA duopoly – and perhaps the invitation list, at least the photographers one, may have originated in that long past era of the last photo show. Additionally it seemed strange that some important players in the world of photography including a now, local renowned photojournalist, who actually knew HCB, wasn’t on the invitation list but secured entry as guests or by unofficially passed on invites.

After the usual opening speeches the invitees were allowed access to the exhibition. The show takes in the history of the photographer’s work in around 250 individual mounted and framed images. Those familiar with the HCB oeuvre will no doubt shuffle from one iconic image to the next, lingering long enough to grasp the moment, the intensity of light and the message that Henri composed. This exhibition puts into perspective his remarkable career behind the camera. For many however, the sheer volume of imagery could be too much. HCB himself said ‘you’ve got to milk the cow a lot to make a little cheese’ but this cheese platter may be so rich it is beyond quadruple Brie!

HCB worked as a photographer over a significant period of time, the exhibition media release quotes 70 years (although this may be misleading if we follow the HCB Foundation’s chronology of his first photographs being made in 1931 and then retiring in 1974 to take up drawing). He photographed portraits, the world in turmoil, the street corner and moments of poetry in everyday life. He lived, and worked, in a time where images were cherished, published and communicated. A time when photographers revered each other’s work and banded together to ‘make a difference’ to the world through the truthfulness of their lens and mass communication of journals like George Luce’s LIFE magazine. In its day the magazine was the TV news and the up-to-the-minute blog post – the world was a wide and weird place and HCB used his trusty Leica as a divining rod to seek out the unfamiliar and in doing so make order from the chaos of the continuum of time.

HCB was aided in the making of his distinctive photo work by his training under the tutelage of the cubist André Lhote and Cartier-Bresson’s passion for surrealism. It is often quoted that he found reality stranger that anything he could conjure up in his mind – so he took up photography. HCB, was inspired to photograph in particular, after seeing an image by Martin Munkacsi entitled Three boys at Lake Tanganyka 1930, of silhouetted boys running into surf.

Commentators on his HCB’s work such as Clement Greenberg (1964) described him as an ‘art photographer’ and added that ‘even among painter-photographers he stands out by the sophistication of his art consciousness[i]’. Art historian Ernst Gombrich (1978) honing in on HCB’s artist-training background claims that everything in our environment ‘resonates in our mind, tough we are rarely fully aware of these reverberations. It needs an artist to make us attend to the message of reality. Henri Cartier-Bresson is such an artist.[ii]’ Interestingly the ‘artist’ tag was played down by photographers who thought of him as being a ‘photographer’. None-the-less by 1974 HCB had had enough of photography and returned to his beloved drawing which he continued to practice until his death in 2004.

The world of 2011 is a different place to that which was inhabited by the camera toting HCB. Today he could be arrested, or at least hassled by police or overly protective parents for attempting to make the kind of photos for which he is famous. In 2011 he would have problems getting his work published as essays in major magazines usually don’t allow such in depth reportage. He may have been required to shoot in colour. He would still be able to pursue gallery exhibition and book publishing – one could even imagine a HCB Blurb book or two and maybe an online sales website. Could HCB have accepted the death of film, the spectre of the digital age and digital enhancement, and the public’s scepticism of the photo as truth? It’s interesting to note HCB disciple Sebastio Salgado has made the switch to digital and is proudly advertising his use of DXO film emulation software to enable his digital later images to have the same ‘look’ and grain ‘feel’ of the early film photos.

Ultimately one needs to ask the question ‘is Cartier-Bresson’s work meaningful today?’ Some, including this writer, may consider HCB a significant influence and guide in their personal practice as documentary photographers. Others will trace the meaning of the photographs as a thread that runs through their own lived experience – for them the images are touchstones for nostalgia and remembrance. Contemporary photographers may be inspired to emulate the ‘decisive moment’ and stage it in tableaux a la Jeff Wall, because that’s how it would be done today. We could lament the fact that the huge curatorial interest invested in iconising Cartier-Bresson many cause other, perhaps equally brilliant photodocumentary workers, to end up being overlooked. Wouldn’t it have been perhaps fitting for the QAG to have curated a companion show that could have provided an Australian context for HCB’s local peers and followers.

Admittedly the allure of the HCB street photographer persists today for many young practitioners. If they get a chance to see this work they may respect the provenance of their trade and find inspiration making documents of life as candid moments. This new work will enter the public record to feed the need for future nostalgia binges – for those who can remember, and be faithful documents of these times for those who aren’t born yet, to peer at and think how quaint it must have been to alive then.

After seeing the show I went home and pulled out my old Leica M3. I held it in my hands and reverently fired off all the shutter speeds several times, I pined for the times past when we were inseparable, before putting it back, as HCB had done so many years before, in safe storage.


Doug Spowart   September 17, 2011

[i] Clement Greenberg, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1, Number 11, Januay 23, 1964. P9.

[ii] Ernst Gombrich, Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum 1978 p.5

Written by Cooper+Spowart

August 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm

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