Entrance of the exhibition at Somerset House

Entrance of the exhibition at Somerset House


L’appareil photographique est pour moi un carnet de croquis, l’instrument de l’intuition et de la spontanéité, le maître de l’instant qui, en termes visuels, questionne et décide à la fois.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Ernst Haas. New-Orleans

Ernst Haas. New-Orleans

The exhibition “A Question of Colour” brings together two concepts dear to photography: colour and the idea of the “decisive moment”. For those not familiar with the latter, it is a phrase coined in its French version by Cartier-Bresson, to be the title of one of his books. It encapsulates a whole attitude of the photographer of being on the lookout at a good spot and waiting for the right things to happen to push the button. It produces images that are unique, unexpected and perfectly framed, which are dear, among others, to the “humanist” photographers of the post-war period.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. A Cafe, Brooklyn, New York, 1947.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. A Cafe, Brooklyn, New York, 1947.

Whether making Cartier-Bresson the attractive title of a show where you can see more pictures by others than by him was a purposeful commercial gesture, I don’t know, but it certainly is cunning. I vaguely thought (silly me!) I was going to see images in colour by Cartier-Bresson, but I was on the wrong tracks.

Rather, the narrative of the curator brings you to understand how fiercely against colour photography Cartier-Bresson was. Then you are brought to a second generation of artists who did experiment colour, as if to prove him “wrong” on his own grounds: the idea of the decisive moment.

I guess we could debate whether all the artists presented really belong to the “decisive moment” legacy. I doubt that framing some good window reflections is considered as a decisive moment, but I am also tempted to say every photograph in the world stems from a decision to capture and choose this specific moment over the next.

Boris Savelev, Cafe Ion, Moscow, 1987

Boris Savelev, Cafe Ion, Moscow, 1987

I felt that the ten Cartier-Bresson photographs (the only ones in black and white) were almost incongruous in this ocean of colour sensations, despite the fact that they were advertised as “never before exhibited in the UK”. So is this exhibition exploring colour or the legacy of the “decisive moment” and the heavy influence Cartier-Bresson had on future generations of photographers? Of course it is both, and the title is misleading. It all comes together at the end with a display of magazines where colour pictures by Cartier-Bresson had been published. So he did dip his toes in colour, but it sort of never made it to the walls. It remained on the printed page, as much photography work does. That is the beauty of the final twist proposed by this exhibition.

All in all I really appreciated this show: a free exhibition of photography, with curation of quality (William Ewing) and a real insight in the history of photography. It also represents the beginning of a partnership between the Somerset House and The Positive View Foundation (dedicated to photography), which hopefully can only be “positive” to the medium.

Henri Cartier-Bresson | A Question of Colour | 8 November 2012 – 27January 2013 | Somerset House, South Wing


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