Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour

Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harlem, New York, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harlem, New York, 1947

This strangely mis-titled show at Somerset House includes only a handful of photographs by the great French photographer and, in a sense, isn’t really about colour either.  The connection with Cartier-Bresson is this: firstly, that he once wrote somewhat disparagingly about colour photography; and, second, that he coined the term ‘the decisive moment’.

When Cartier-Bresson made his remarks about colour photography it was 1952 and the medium was still in its early years of development, and his thoughts about the use of colour were based on the technical problems associated with shooting in colour (the film was too slow and usually required needed artificial light, so goodbye to decisive moments) and the aesthetic limitations of colour reproduction at the time.  In the same essay he did admit that colour photography was in its infancy, and there was no knowing how it might develop.

No truer word was spoken.  These days, in anyone’s hands, digital cameras and smartphones can seize something that happens and capture it in the very moment that it takes place.  And everything in high-definition colour.

What Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour aims to do is show how photographers in the last thirty years or so have adopted and adapted the Cartier-Bresson’s adage of the ‘decisive moment’ to working in colour. This large exhibition, which I saw when in London a couple of weeks ago, includes more than 75 works by 14 international acclaimed photographers, regarded by the curator as having demonstrated the ability to capture that brief moment, as Cartier-Bresson put it, when meaning crystallizes in a situation, revealing the order underlying apparent chaos – and to do it in colour.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brooklyn, New York, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brooklyn, New York, 1947

‘Black and white are the colours of photography’, Robert Frank once remarked.  But, as the technology of colour photography and printing began to improve, photographers began to sense that black and white were not the colours of reality, that black and white presented too large a gap between real life and image.

The resistance to colour lasted until the late 1970s, then, in 1976, the legendary John Szarkowski filled MoMA with the colour photography of William Eggleston, and the world of photography was revolutionized.  At least in respect to colour.  Like much of the work of American photographers at the time, Eggleston’s images were about ‘the aesthetic potential of the commonplace’ (Gerry Badger).  But they would not have worked in black and white.

Cartier-Bresson is hailed as having laid the foundations for the development of documentary and street photography – which is the genre to which most of the photographs in this exhibition belong. The Cartier-Bresson photos exhibited here all date, with one exception, from the late 1940s. They were taken in America and have never been exhibited in the UK, though they have been published. They represent a turning point, when the photographer moved from a highly personal ‘surreal’ approach down the path of professional reportage.

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960
Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960

One of the earliest photographs here is the wonderful, painterly Snow, taken by Saul Leiter in 1960.  Leiter’s early work in the 1940s and 1950s was an important contribution to what came to be known as The New York School.  He began taking colour photographs as early as 1948, and MoMA’s 1957 conference ‘Experimental Photography in Colour’ featured 20 colour photographs by Leiter. His abstracted forms and radically innovative compositions have a painterly quality that stands out among the work of his New York School contemporaries, perhaps because Leiter has continued to work as both a photographer and painter.

But Leiter’s personal colour photography was, for the most part, not shared with the public (he was better known as a successful fashion photographer in the 1950s and 1960s).  But throughout those years Leiter continued to walk the streets (mostly New York and Paris), making photographs for his own pleasure. He printed some of his black-and-white street photos, but kept most of his colour slides tucked away in boxes. It was only in the 1990s that he began to look back at his colour work and start to make prints.

Fred Herzog, Crossing Powell, 1984
Fred Herzog, Crossing Powell, 1984

Fred Herzog’s story is similar.  Born in Germany, but living most of his life in Canada, Herzog’s work was centred primarily on the lives of working class people in Vancouver.  Because he worked primarily with Kodachrome slide film, he was marginalised as an artist in the 1950s and 1960s. It is only in the last decade that his work – such as 1984’s Crossing Powell here – has received significant critical attention.

Joel Meyerowitz, Madison Avenue New York, 1975
Joel Meyerowitz, Red Coat, Fifth Avenue New York, 1975
Joel Meyerowitz, Camel Coats, Fifth Avenue, New York, 1975

Joel Meyerowitz is a renowned street photographer who began photographing in colour in 1962 and was an early advocate of the use of colour at a time when there was significant resistance to the idea of colour photography as serious art.  Meyerowitz is a key figure in street photography, and has been instrumental in changing the attitudes toward the use of colour photography, so it is appropriate that he represented here by two of his classic images.

Alex Webb, Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1985

Alex Webb is another key figure in street photography. In 1976 he became an associate member of Magnum and went on  to document small-town life in the American South. He also did some work in the Caribbean and Mexico, which led him, in 1978, to begin working in colour, as represented in this exhibition by his image from Tehuantepec in Mexico.

I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner.

Harry Gruyaert, Morocco, town of Duarzazte. 1986
Harry Gruyaert, Morocco, town of Duarzazte, 1986

The Belgian, Harry Gruyaert is another Magnum photographer renowned for his colour reportage.  He is represented here by an image from a 1986 Magnum portfolio compiled in Morocco.

Jeff Mermelstein, Untitled (10 bill in mouth) New York City,1992
Jeff Mermelstein, Untitled (10 bill in mouth) New York City,1992

New Yorker Jeff Mermelstein regards his photography as a cross between photojournalism and voyeuristic street photography. Mermelstein, who studied biology, makes photographic series that document and classify his subjects. For example, Twirl (2001-09) presents images of women Mermelstein encountered twirling their hair, while Run (1995-2009) is a collection featuring individuals as they dash between destinations. Mermelstein explains: ‘I generally do not have a theme when in the act of photographing. Themes emerge after the photographs begin to accumulate.’

Melanie Einzig, Untitled
Melanie Einzig, Untitled

Melanie Einzig is another New York street photographer who sums up her approach in these words:

My process is linked to everyday life. Only on rare occasions do I go out specifically to ‘shoot’. My best photographs were taken going to or from work, or some other destination. Sometimes a picture appears that helps me sum up a strange mood or thought that I’ve struggled with for weeks. Other times my work is more documentary in nature.

Photographing in public keeps me awake and aware, always looking around, in awe at what we humans are up to. In a time when staged narratives and rendered images are popular, I am excited by the fact that life itself offers situations far more strange and beautiful than anything I could set up.

Trent Parke, Man Vomiting, 2006
Trent Parke, Man Vomiting, 2006

Trente Parke is an Australian photojournalist who joined Magnum Photos in 2002.  His series Welcome to Nowhere, from which Man Vomiting is taken, focused on Australian small towns, capturing arresting images with strong colours and a formal composition, that convey a sense of stillness that is almost surreal. The humour of Man Vomiting seems to testify to Parke’s ability to capture unforeseen moments and juxtapositions.

Karl Baden, from the series In and out of the car
Karl Baden, from the series In and Out of the Car

Karl Baden photographs like a drive-by shooter, through the side window of his car. Among several of these images included in the exhibition is this one, captured when a van with a huge bagel painted on its side, drew up alongside.  Baden employs supersaturated colour that grabs your attention.

Boris Savelev, Dog Moscow, 2007

Boris Savelev, Cafe Ion, Moscow, 1988

Boris Savelev is a Russian photographer born in Ukraine in 1948. He started out as an aerospace engineer, but has made his name in photography since 1976. Savelev uses colour very differently to the previous two photographers. In his images, colour is unsaturated and seeps and spreads through light itself.

Andy Freeberg, from Art Fare, 2011
Andy Freeberg, from Art Fare, 2011
Andy Freeberg, ‘Spinello, New York Pulse’, 2010
Andy Freeberg, ‘Spinello, New York Pulse’, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Sean Kelly Art Basel Miami, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Sean Kelly Art Basel Miami, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Art Miami, 2012
Andy Freeberg, Art Miami, 2012

Perhaps the most immediately eye-catching images in the exhibition were those by Andy Freeberg.  They are taken from his series Art Fare, and, in a bizarre and hilarious mix of two dimensional art on the wall and three dimensional people, document the  world of collectors’ art fairs.

Carolyn Drake, Birthday Party in Olympia, Florida, 2005
Carolyn Drake, Birthday Party in Olympia, Florida, 2005
Carolyn Drake, Breeze, Zhetisay Kazakhstan, 2009
Carolyn Drake, Breeze, Zhetisay Kazakhstan, 2009
Carolyn Drake, Border town, Kyrgystan, 2008
Carolyn Drake, Border town, Kyrgystan, 2008

Carolyn Drake is an American-born photographer currently living in Istanbul.  She is represented in this exhibition by the Martin Parr-like Birthday Party in Olympia, Florida, and by the photo above – part of an ongoing project photographing in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Drake is concerned to document the relationship of the people to the land and water and to explore how these countries are coping with economic and ecological crisis, and political uncertainty.  David Dwyer, writing on his On Photography blog, considered this to be one of the best colour photographs in the exhibition:

It is quite reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson in content, but also by virtue of its exquisite composition. While in colour, colour is neither what “makes” it nor something that “gets in the way” of the photograph, it simply adds to it. It comes alive the way that great photos do, with the viewer’s gaze contently bringing various parts to the forefront, supported by perfect harmony with that which recedes. It is one of the most immersive to look at in the entire exhibition.

Melanie Einzig, New York, 11 September 2001
Melanie Einzig, New York, 11 September 2001

Finally, I’m return to Melanie Einzig, for an image that, it seems to me, captures a decisive moment in more ways than one: on that fateful day in Sepember 2001, a courier pursues his daily round as, behind him, the world changes decisively.

‘Colour is for painters’, Cartier-Bresson once said. You might say that this exhibition disproves that statement.

See also

Cartier-Bresson in Liverpool

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

See also

Henri Cartier-Bresson: a decisive moment


While we were away in Catalonia, Henri Cartier-Bresson died. Here are links to various obituaries and appreciations: