As promised, the first of two slightly more in-depth posts covering the exhibitions currently showing at Somerset House, following on from my previous post.
Street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, founder of the “decisive moment” ethos, is well known for having disapproved of colour photography, feeling that it’s technological limitations prevented it from maintaining the realism and honesty of black and white. Curator of Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, William E. Ewing, views this as more of a challenge, and has put together an impressive response in an exhibition in collaboration with Positive View Foundation which features ten Cartier-Bresson images never before exhibited in the UK, alongside works by 15 contemporary photographers. Karl Baden, Carolyn Drake, Melanie Einzig, Andy Freeberg, Harry Gruyaert, Ernst Haas, Fred Herzog, Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, Jeff Mermelstein, Joel Meyerowitz, Trent Parke, Boris Savelev, Robert Walker, and Alex Webb all work in colour and all maintain at least a small element of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”.
Throughout the exhibition, images have been grouped together around a single shot by Cartier-Bresson, echoing similar themes and content. In the first room, which opens with a black and white image by Cartier-Bresson of a woman stood beside a store window, Washington 1947, the themes of windows and reflections are repeated throughout the surrounding images. Melanie Einzig’s New York, New York features a man stood by a store window, alongside Karl Baden’s shots through car windows, or Saul Leiter’s and Robert Walker’s experiments with reflections and store window displays. Later in the exhibition can be found Helen Levitt’s Girl in Window, Orange Reflection (New York 1972) alongside an image by Cartier-Bresson of a man leaning out of a window in Harlem (New York 1947).
Cartier-Bressons shots of workers at a fish market is echoed in the neighbouring shots by Harry Gruyat of small crowd scenes, a marketplace in Morocco, a cafe in Egypt, or tourists at the bank of the Nile. In most of these images, as in Cartier-Bresson’s, the subjects are looking away from the camera, captured absorbed in their work.
The second room of the exhibition focuses on gestures, from Cartier-Bresson’s shot of two men spreading their arms on a pavement in an exaggerated gesture, to Harry Gruyart’s street scene of Calcutta, in which a young man at the centre sits with his head in his hands, to Jeff Mermelstein’s street shots, such as an elderly woman with a $10 bill in her mouth, frowning and looking down.
The question of colour is confronted throughout the exhibition, with Carolyn Drake standing out for her clever use of complementary colours to frame and emphasise key moments. An image of New Kashgar shows two women in red dresses, against a red wall, with red motorbikes creating a foreground around a blue wooden door which frames a young girl in a rust-orange dress. The same technique is repeated in Convenience Store, in which a man dressed in green blends in with the dark, green-tinged plastic slats of the store’s back entrance – as though camouflaged – while the surrounding wall and piled crates create a frame of yellow. Robert Walker’s shots use similar techniques, juxtaposing two colours to almost split the frame, as with the blue human-statue of Lady Liberty who stands alongside an over-tanned woman next to a hot-dog cart.
Ernst Haas, on the other hand, groups two colours together to create a similar tied-in effect, as with the close up of a hand holding an orange, with an orange step in the out-of-focus background. In Lena 1, Moscow, Boris Saveler groups browns together to create a sombre, almost monochrome image. Both Fred Herzog’s Crossing Powell and Alex Webb’s Nuevo Laredo use shadows or silhouettes against warm, evening light to beautiful effect. The silhouette of a young girl hugging a man, framed in a circle of light, would perhaps look cold and a little harsh in black and white, but the colour and tone lends a warmth which softens the effect and creates a lovely image.
One of the images which stands out the most is one of the smallest, Melanie Einzig’s September 11th, in which a postman stands in the foreground, holding a parcel and eyeing the building he is approaching with a calm, almost smiling expression. In the background, clouds of grey smoke are billowing from the towers. The bright blue of the sky and warm, peaceful lighting of the street lend a peaceful tone to the image which is in stark contrast to the dramatic scene in the background, and without the use of colour this image would perhaps lose some of it’s impact.
Although not all the answers are there, A Question of Colour is certainly a good response to Cartier-Bresson’s unintended challenge. If anything, the exhibition shows how the development of colour photography over time has given a new dimension to street photography, allowing for expression of tone and mood, and bringing a richness to certain images that might be otherwise lost in black and white. In colour or black and white, street photography appeals to the voyeur in all of us, and this exhibition showcases some of the best.
Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour is running at Somerset House from 8th November 2012 – 27th January 2013. Admission is free.