Henri Cartier Bresson at the Fine Art Society – London

This was a  rather good, big exhibition (50 prints dating from 1932 to 1999) held in the Fine Art Society’s hall, looping round ground floor entrance area and then making a run up the stairs to the first floor. You had to slip behind reception desks at some points to look more closely, and at one point the flow was broken by a canvas studded with arrows and a staircase heading down into the basement, but the viewing conditions were generally good and the pictures lit well.

Prices for the prints, which were commissioned – quite casually it would seem from the introduction to the downloadable catalogue – by Peter Fetterman, a gallery owner and collector based in the US with printing supervised and signed by Cartier Bresson in the 90s ranged from 13k to 25k (+  5% import duty). Photography has at least entered the lobby of the fine arts if not its upstairs galleries; and more proof is offered that nothing sells like something death-guaranteed in its finiteness.

In books on photography, Cartier-Bresson is associated with Street Photography, surrealism, the decisive moment and with the foundation of  Magnum, the agency set up to represent  photographers’ interest in relation to publishers of their picture; here the pictures on show are obviously there to be viewed as art and also as objects of value, rather than as reportage, regardless of the intention when they were made. As such, they are strictly protected from from attempts to reframe either their meaning or the pictures themselves.

The Fine Art Society’s exhibition web-page states: “Please note that the images on this page must not be downloaded, reproduced, distributed, copied, modified or kept on file.” Needless to say, there are no photographs to be taken in the gallery. Then there is the trademark black border showing the whole negative has been printed and the Magnum site states clearly, in red on the page devoted to each photograph: “Please contact Magnum local office for any usage. This photo may not be cropped or trimmed in reproduction.”

Cartier-Bresson did not make his own prints (and the catalogue and the caption cards here describe the prints as  “supervised by Hugh Cartier Bresson” and “signed in ink with the photographer’s blindstamp on the recto” which certainly sets them apart from pictures in the paper, or a magazine) but he certainly paid close attention to what they looked like and worked to control the conditions of their circulation.

The stuff on show here is no longer simple pictures, decisive moments or portrayals of events which occurred; rather they are objects with value attached, relics even. If someone buys one, they won’t be drawing-pinned to a wall. This is the context of the exhibition itself, but it is still possible to pass beyond it all and look at the pictures as pictures. Even though you probably wouldn’t use drawing pins anyway.

It’s always good to see physical prints of photographs. While this can apply either to your own pictures or to someone else’s, this is particularly true, I think, of famous pictures you know well as reproductions – either online or in books.

Of course there is the cyclist speeding over a cobbled street, seen from above and the plump man, behind the Gare St Lazare, forever an instant away from getting his feet wet, and the fat bloke in a trilby crossing the square behind the milling faces of Spanish boys. And these prints are beautiful to look at: I found myself looking at the soft, grainy backgrounds of familiar images, paying it almost as much attention to that as to the ostensible subject – they are not black and white so much as a whole spectrum of different greys; and at the detail that is so much more apparent than in a book, with the speeding bicycle revealed to have spokes to its wheels and the circus poster in the backround of the Gare St Lazare,with its perfect mirror of the jumping man.

But it is surprising how few of the other pre-war pictures – and it was the pre-war work that I prefer to the the post war stuff, where Cartier-Bresson is obviously making a living, rather than losing himself somewhere with his Leica to hand and  are obviously of decisive moments, produced by patient loitering in front of a likely scene waiting for everything to coalesce into a perfect, composed moment in time, frozen by the release of the hunter’s shutter. Many more have instead a sense of mystery about them pulling you in to stare and to look and to peer, trying to work out exactly what it is that is going on. I’ll write in more depth about my favourite of these – three Spanish Women, staring out at us, caught as their fingers touch, engaged in some strange ritual – in a later post (which will be linked, once it is published).

For now, I’ll simply say that it is this sense of mystery – what is the man peering at through the cloth hoarding in Brussels? is that a woman or a man? – and of narrative not quite made clear that characterises the best of the pictures here and seems to me to mark the influence of surrealism on Cartier-Bresson, before he had had time to work out his own theories and to set them in aspic. It feels as if the process of finding out  – “Oh you can do that with a camera!” – was fun and that that sense of fun and discovery has found its way into the pictures.

The exhibition splits roughly 1:2 into pre-war and post-war. The postwar pictures (or those taken after the formation of Magnum) are fine – I particularly like the way the prow of a gondola cuts a curved bridge into two, with a girl caught running a few steps into the portion on the right; the way Giacometi is frozen mid pace in his studio in 1961, perfectly mirroring the pace of one of his tall, thin, striding statues is as good a demonstration of a decisive moment as you get, but only one of them has the sense of mystery that characterises the best of the exhibition’s pictures taken in the thirties. This is a picture of a crowd of people being held back by a line of men in greatcoats, braced on a wooden beam, stretching across a road in Shanghai in 1947.

You look at it and wonder what exactly is it that’s going on here, and while you wonder, you look at the faces looking out at you and you stare at the picture and inhabit it a bit. You even forget you’re standing awkwardly, half-behind a reception desk in the hallway of the Fine Art Society to do so.

In the exhibition, it is titled “Shanghai, China 1949”; on the Magnum site, it is captioned, “CHINA. Shanghai. December 1948-January 1949. As the value of the paper money sank, the Kuomintang decided to distribute 40 grams of gold per person. With the gold rush, in December, thousands came out and waited in line for hours. The police, equipped with the remnants of the armies of the International Concession, made only a gesture toward maintaining order. Ten people were crushed to death.”

History and the picture’s original context – part of a photo-essay on the last days of the Chiang Kai-Shek’s rule of mainland China –  has been stripped away and only art (and mystery) remain.


Fine Art Society: HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON: DECISIVE MOMENTS (checked 27/10/15)

Magnum – Henri Cartier Bresson (checked 27/10/15)

1 thought on “Henri Cartier Bresson at the Fine Art Society – London

  1. Pingback: Assignment 4: “A picture is worth a thousand words” – Choices and Preparation | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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