Cartier-Bresson in Liverpool

Passing through one of the rooms of the Walker Art Gallery recently I happened to notice, in the corner, a small display of photographs – some by Henri Cartier-Bresson alongside others by local photographer Edward Chambre Hardman.  I was surprised to discover that not only had the great French photographer visited Liverpool in the sixties to make a TV documentary about the north, but that he had taken photographs less than half a mile from where I now live. It seems a little fantastical, the idea that the master of the ‘decisive moment’ wandered along Lodge Lane with his Leica.

But it’s true, as one of the photos on display at the Walker confirms.  It’s a picture taken outside Lodge Lane wash-house in 1962. In those days there were still several public wash-houses in Liverpool, where women from the local streets who didn’t possess a washing machine would take their laundry. Most families had an old pram to transport cloths to the wash-house, and in the photo Cartier-Bresson shows the prams parked down the side entrance in Grierson Street. Kids would be ordered by their mums to mind the pram by standing outside for hours.

Lodge Lane washhouse by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Walker has on display five photographic prints the gallery acquired from shots taken by Cartier-Bresson when he came to Liverpool in 1962 as part of a team filming a TV documentary about northerners. Cartier-Bresson came away with a rather dour first impression of  Liverpool and the English north. He later commented in ‘Notes from the North’ (now in the Walker archive):

Writing about the same people of the North at work amounts to the same as writing about them at play. Their looks are not so different neither are their clothes. There is no exuberance on their faces nor gestures. They are hard at it but in a resigned sort of way. Their vacationing seems just an occupation as any other. [...]

There is still very much a feeling of the dragging of the 19th century … I look at it from the windshield of my camera.  In these pictures are the impression I have gained.

As often happens with me,it came to me later I’d seen a couple of these images before – in the wonderful Tate exhibition during Capital of Culture Year, Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde. Christoph Grunenberg and Robert Knifton commented on Cartier-Bresson’s visit in their book documenting the exhibition:

Undoubtedly Liverpool in the early 1960s was an austere place, still recovering from the devastation of war and yet to experience the explosion of the Merseybeat phenomenon. Cartier-Bresson’s iconic images stand in a long tradition that has its origins in the activities of documentary film and photography of the 1930s and Mass Observation in Britain in particular and which, with variations, continues to shape conventions until today. This ‘school of miserable realism’ paints an uncompromising picture of hardship, industrial decline and urban deprivation while emphatically focusing on the individual fate and almost heroic resistance in the face of persistent adversity. Cartier-Bresson’s views on the holidaying working class cannot help but call to mind, for example, Martin Parr’s famous series of working-class Scouse daytrippers at New Brighton, The Last Resort 1983-6 or Tom Wood’s night revellers at play in the same location. But as Parr’s title for this memorable series highlights, this was already a vanishing world at the time it was being captured by these photographers.

There are four photographs currently on display at the Walker, in addition to the one outside Lodge Lane washhouse. One is of a group of men moving barrow (above). It was taken by the Wellington Column, near the Walker on William Brown Street. Another image (below) shows two boys playing in a street, possibly taken in Smithdown Lane. There’s a shot of a man and girl outside the Walker (below), and another of shipworkers laying a keel at Cammel Lairds shipyard.

Liverpool, England, 1962 (below) must have been taken during the same visit. The photo featured in an exhibition marking what would have been Cartier-Bresson’s 100th birthday at the International Centre of Photography, New York.  The catalogue placed the image in the context of Cartier-Bresson’s career:

Is there anyone unfamiliar with the famous work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the legendary, influential photographer and filmmaker – receiver of many countries’ highest awards?

Born 100 years ago (1908-2004) near Paris, France, Henri Cartier-Bresson found fame with the invention of the tiny, lightweight 35mm Leica camera, replacing heavier bulkier cameras of the day. With the camera fitting in his hand, Cartier-Bresson could work inconspicuously – watching for “the decisive moment”– a social comment, a funny incident, a great scene.

Before he was famous, he’d survived blackwater fever in Africa, and later during WWII, three years imprisonment by the Nazis followed by and escape to fight for a free France.  His career began after the war in 1947 with Robert Capa and others founding the Magnum Photo Agency.  His assignments led him across the world to land at historic turning points like the making on the new Republic of China, as well as the death of Ghandi in India.

But for the youthful Cartier-Bresson, a camera was not his first choice – preferring a career in painting.  Paris in the 1920’s exploded with modern art movements – Impressionism to Cubism.  Cartier-Bresson took to Surrealism – learning the power of form and composition. But not content, he left for more studies in England. Later, while in Africa, he hunted – sighting game with a rangefinder rifle.

Back in Paris, inspired by innovative photographers, he trained his sights through a viewfinder camera to shoot photos. Seeking a new realism in the streets, he transformed the imagination of the painter into the vision of the photographer.  Instead of a brush and paint on canvas, he clicked the shutter on film.  Not interested in darkroom technique, or the manipulations of tones, or of cropping, he composed in the camera viewfinder for the direct-end-result.

He said, “Photography is not like painting.  There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture.  Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life offers you  — and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

‘Liverpool, England, 1962′, shows 3 little girls wearing white socks, black dress shoes, and Sunday best coats walking soberly in front of a brick shell of a building surrounded by rubble and other gray bombed-out buildings.  The contrast of innocent life going forward amidst destruction comments on human durability.

Christopher Allen, writing, in November 2011, a review of an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson photographs at Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane drew attention to this image showing ‘three little girls walking past massive ruined buildings in Liverpool long after the end of World War II’ and reflected that:

Cartier-Bresson’s subject is humanity in the endless diversity he discovers across the world. He has an acute eye for incongruities and ironies but it is invariably a sympathetic rather than a satirical one. … Among the most striking pictures are those of people in very poor countries, eking out a subsistence living in harsh countryside or even harsher city streets. … One feels that Cartier-Bresson was driven to seek out places where life is experienced in a more elemental way than in the sophisticated Parisian world of his youth; and as much as the material conditions of life, it is the psychological or mental life of the people that he glimpses, whether subjects are caught unawares or stare straight at the photographer. [...]

Mortality is pervasive and casts a certain melancholy over the images of slum-dwellers. … Life and hope, on the other hand, are repeatedly evoked through images of children. …

Sifting through a selection of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, it is true that many of his most memorable images feature children.  He would not be able to walk the streets aiming his lens so casually at children today.  Paul Trevor, who spent six months of 1975 documenting life on Liverpool’s most deprived streets, commented in an interview with the Liverpool Daily Post:

To photograph kids today in the way I did is literally impossible.  This generation today is the first since photography was invented that is not being photographed in the same way. We live in a very different world and parents don’t feel so safe letting their kids out. Their kids are busy with computer games, there’s a lot of paranoia. I would probably have to discuss the project in advance with police and request permission from parents.  Imagine if Cartier-Bresson had to do what students today are being advised to do and get permission first before you take the picture. It’s a great loss to culture but it might be a blip. It might be something we all get over and future generations won’t be so paranoid.

In his latest collection, That Awkward Age, Roger McGough has a poem called ‘Street Urchins’ that combines a personal childhood memory with his imagining of an encounter between Cartier-Bresson and two scouse urchins.  This must be another Liverpool image from that 1962 visit of Cartier-Bresson’s to the city – I haven’t been able to identify it.

Street Urchins’
Henri Cartier-Bresson

In the foreground, two boys with dirty faces
snub-nosed and unwashed,
are grinning wildly as they hug each other.

One is bare-footed, his elder brother
wears oversized boots without laces.
Both in ragged matching jumpers.

It is a sunny day, but cold.
A lamp post leans a heavy shadow
diagonally across the pavement.

In the background, the mother
pushing the large hooded pram
is mufiled in headscarfand winter coat.

In black and white, the photograph
could have been taken in any street
in any industrial town not long after the war.

***

Fade in colour and movement.
The town in fact is Liverpool,
a September morning down by the docks.

After telling the Frenchman to fuck off
the boys, still laughing,
race each other down the cobbled street,

cross a bomb site and turn
into ajigger that runs between
the backs ofterraced houses.

A seven-year-old boy,
unsure of his surroundings,
is taking a short cut home from school.

The boy in boots picks up halfa brick,
his brother, ajagged piece ofroofslate.
They close in on the stranger.

I give them all I have
A thripenny bit and a brand new pencil.
Fade out colour and movement.

Liverpool, 1962

While in Liverpool in 1962, Cartier-Bresson also took these photos of dock workers:

Dockers’ pay day

Dockers, Liverpool

Dockers, Liverpool

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11 thoughts on “Cartier-Bresson in Liverpool

      • Hi Gerry, I don’t think they do, although part of St Anne’s School was at the top of Lovat Street which might be still there. The picture of Leyland Street looks up to the pub on the corner of Harboard Street then up to Juno Street with Wavertree Road running across the top in the distance.

  1. St Annes school is still there, but there has been so much rebuilding and alteration of road layouts in that area in the last 40-odd years that the scene photographed by Cartier-Bresson is now something from a lost past.

  2. It is nice that these scenes are recorded for posterity. But this fascination for working class Liverpool life? Dockers were just a group of labourers, no different to any labourers in any other city. Liverpool was much more than lower working class life and dockers.

    • So it was – but I think many in Liverpool would want to sit down with you over a pint and argue the case that the dockers were different in many respects, not least working conditions and tradition of solidarity.

  3. Liverpool was not all about a large group of labourers. They are not representative of Liverpool as a whole. Men in Woolton were working in mainly agricultural work – very different – yet in Liverpool. Other were building engines and other products. They are all forgotten over a bunch of labourers working on docks. London does not go on about the London docks, neither does Glasgow or Hull.

    I am sure the Egyptian’s think the labourers who built the pyramids were different as well – who left something for all to see.

  4. These dockers were in the 1960s yet they wore clothes like in the 1930s. Frozen in time, no progress. These pictures could easily be the 1930s. No wonder the docks closed.

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