8 NOVEMBER 2012 - 27 JANUARY 2013
It was taken for granted, for most of Cartier-Bresson’s career span, that photographing in an artful manner meant capturing one’s subject in black and white; colour was something reserved for commerce. As long as the illustrated magazines were restricted to black and white reproduction, this posed no problem for photographers who adored the medium.
However, when improvements in colour reproduction in the post-war period led to increasing demands for colour photography, those same photographers found it hard to resist the pressure. Like many other photographers of his time, Cartier-Bresson was sceptical about colour’s art potential; he believed substantial technical obstacles remained, both in the taking of the picture [the film was too slow and usually required needed artificial light, so one could say goodbye to spontaneity, for example] and its reproduction [plate-making was laborious and registration was a nightmare].
Even more seriously, Cartier-Bresson had deep misgivings about colour film as an expressive medium. He could not resist a damning conclusion: “A colour photograph reproduced in a magazine or semi-luxury edition sometimes gives the impression of an anatomical dissection which has been badly bungled.” And he knew this from first-hand experience, as he had often given in to that pressure, then be forced to confront the feeble results splashed across double-page spreads in the magazines. MoMA curator Peter Galassi accurately gauges the photographer’s attitude to colour as “a marginal matter – an irritant or at best a passing temptation, but not a structural part of his work.”
Nevertheless, despite his personal scepticism, he admitted that colour photography was in its infancy, and justified further experimentation. It required “a new attitude of mind, an approach different than that which is appropriate for black and white… We must continue to try to feel our way.”
Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour features the work of a select number of photographers whose commitment to expression in colour was (or is) wholehearted, sophisticated, and measures up to Cartier-Bresson’s requirement that content and form were in perfect balance. Some were his contemporaries, even, like Ernst Haas, friends; others, like Fred Herzog in Vancouver, knew Cartier-Bresson across a vast distance, essentially through his seminal books. Others were junior colleagues, like Harry Gruyaert, who found themselves debating colour ferociously with the master. And still others, like Andy Freeberg or Carolyn Drake, never knew the man first hand, but feel the influence of his example. However, the exhibition can only deal with the tip of the iceberg. Colour photographers indebted in one way or another to Henri Cartier-Bresson are legion. Nonetheless, few colour photographers could actually live up to the rigour he demanded, which he summarized as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”