Sunday, 17 March 2013

Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour

It has taken me 2 months to write my thoughts about this fascinating exhibition which was located at Somerset House in London.  Somerset House is becoming a place I visit regularly to see photographic and other exhibitions.  The exhibition showed 10 Cartier-Bresson photographs alongside those by 15 other contemporary photographers, mostly from the USA.  These photographers included:  Karl Baden (US), Carolyn Drake (US), Melanie Einzig (US), Andy Freeberg (US), Harry Gruyaert (Belgium), Ernst Haas (Austrian), Fred Herzog (Canadian), Saul Leiter (US), Helen Levitt (US), Jeff Mermelstein (US), Joel Meyerowitz (US), Trent Parke (Australian), Boris Savelev (Ukranian), Robert Walker (Canadian), and Alex Webb (US).  

Whilst I am relatively familiar with Cartier-Bresson's work, I had not come across the work of any of the other photographers, excepting Joel Meyerowitz.  As a catalogue was not available and I wanted to learn more about the other photographers I researched their work using the internet as my tool.  My research was limited to finding out more about each of them and their work, but limiting myself to the photographs which were used in the exhibition, where I could identify them from my memory and the brief notes I made at the time.

Cartier-Bresson (HCB) worked almost entirely in black and white throughout his life, and it was more for commercial reasons that he made an occasional foray into producing work in colour.  In general, he was sceptical about colour photography, particularly in its use in photojournslim, due to the slow speed of colour film which frequently required artificial lighting, so the 'decisive moment' was gone.

The expression which is synonymous with HCB, "The Decisive Moment" comes from when he quoted Cardinal de Retz "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment" in a preface to his book 'Images a la sauvette'.  Later, the English language edition of this book was titled 'The Decisive Moment'.  

The objective of the exhibition, conceived by the curator, William E. Ewing, was to see how contemporary photographers responded to the challenges put down by HCB and produced photographs in colour which had that 'decisive moment' quality about them.

Overall, the exhibition was, for me,  thought provoking and certainly has provided me with inspiration and I would certainly like to follow one or two of the ideas and styles which were exhibited.  In this blog I will be looking in particular at how colour is used and whether the image would convey the same story in black and white.

Starting with a classical HCB image to set the tone:

HCB - Brooklyn, New York 1947

The first of the photographers whose images feature in the exhibition is Karl Baden.

Karl Baden

Karl Baden's images were, to me a revelation.  He has certainly provided me with ideas, though I do not think that I will go as far as he has done in taking photographs while driving!  It is certainly an innovative method and the series displayed at the exhibition made great use of colour to grab the viewer's attention.  The series is called "In and out of the car, 2009 - 2012".  To view more from this set of these you need to look at the web site for the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston:
Colour certainly "makes" many of these images.  Examining one of my favourites, I find it amazing that he is able to "see" and take the picture in the scant seconds available during the drive-by.

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to convert two examples of Karl Baden's work into black and white as shown below:

Karl Baden - Interstate 84 East
I used Lightroom's standard B&W option to do the conversion, without any adjustments.  To me the B&W version just lacks punch and is therefore less effective.

Karl Baden - Chestnut Hill
Again a standard conversion.  This time, I feel that the conversion into monochrome works and, in my mind, show that the image, irrespective of whether it is in colour or B&W, is true to HCB's "Decisive Moment".  The series causes me to ask the question as to whether these were done as part of a daily commute or on random journeys.  They are all, to some extent, amusing observations of life seen from a car.

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz was a name I was previously familiar with, not least from the book "Street photography now" by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, but also from his coverage of Ground Zero after 9/11.  One of his well known images I include below:

Joel Meyerowitz, Camel Coats, Fifth Avenue, New York, 1975
This is an outstanding example of how colour and light can work together to produce a fantastic image.  This is certainly an example of a Decisive Moment.

Melanie Einzig

To me, Melanie Einzig supplied probably the most significant image in the exhibition.  It truly captures that Decisive Moment.  The image captures a courier going about his business, seemingly unaware of the tragedy unfolding behind him as an aircraft impacts one of the towers on 9/11.  The world changed that day.  Einzig did not publish this photograph for a number of years because she was was concerned about how it would be received.

Melanie Einzig, New York 11 Sept 2001
In "Street Photography Now" Einzig reveals that "Photographing in public keeps me awake and aware, always looking around, in awe at what we humans are up to".


Somerset House web site:

The Guardian web site:

Howard Yezerski Gallery:

In Public - a street photography web site

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