Monday, November 9, 2009

Henri Cartier-Bresson in American Photography, 1947

Henri Cartier-Bresson Takes It On the Chin

Here is a review of Henri Cartier-Bresson's first book. The critique ran in the July, 1947, issue of American Photography magazine. For those of delicate sensibilities, it's not pretty so precede at your own risk.

But first, some little historical context.

HCB by Unknown; Self-Portrait; George Hoyningen-Huene

Quick recap of the first half of HCB's life:
Born outside of Paris in 1908 into a typically bourgeois French family; first became obsessed with painting; studied art; met the Surrealists; 1931, went to Africa for a year to make a living shooting animals and selling the meat to the locals; contracted blackwater fever (really bad move); recuperated; discovered Munkacsi's work and decided to give up painting and hit the streets with his camera; worked in film as an actor, cameraman, director alongside Jean Renoir; WW2 broke out, he joined the army, was captured when the Germans swept through France, his third attempt at escaping succeeded and he spent the rest of the war working with the French underground.

Slipped in here and there were exhibits of his work. His first exhibition in NYC was in 1933 at the Julien Levy Gallery. His second show was also at Levy's space only this time it was work of his, Walker Evans' and Manuel Alvarez Bravo sharing the wall space.

Invite for the Evans, Alvarez Bravo and Cartier-Bresson show
at the Julien Levy gallery, 1935.

Julien Levy (1906-81) was an interesting figure, prominent in the modern art world, and a modernist in the sense that he found visual pleasure not only in the 'high' arts but also in fields as wide-ranging as fashion, film, the decorative arts, performance and cartoons. He was a big champion of the surrealists and is probably best remembered as the host of the first exhibit of surrealist art in NYC.

Julian Levy by Jay Leyda c. 1932

He also had an especially strong affection for photography. In fact, his inaugural show at his first gallery space in NYC in 1931 was an homage to Stieglitz that included work by Mathew Brady, Gertrude Kasebier, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Clarence White and Stieglitz. Over the next year, he presented solo shows of work by Man Ray, Bernice Abbot, Lee Miller, George Platt Lynes as well as a dual show of work by Nadar and Atget. Despite being the preeminent dealer of modern art in New York throughout the 1940s, he found photography a hard sell and gradually lost his enthusiasm for the medium.

HCB by Arnold Newman, 1947; Ernst Haas; Lisl Steiner, 1961

Toward the end of the war Cartier-Bresson's death was reported in the U.S.A. The Museum of Modern Art, NYC, started to prepare a posthumous show of his photographs. When his death was found to have been greatly exaggerated, he was invited to New York to work with MoMA on what would be his third US show and his first museum exhibit. (February 4-April 6, 1947.)

This book was published in conjunction with the show. American Photography reviewed it in their July, 1947, issue. They didn't like it.

What follows is the text of the review and at the end of this post are the pages from the magazine themselves.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, text by Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1947. 56 pages, 41 plates, stiff paper bound, $2.00.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is said to be the leading European exponent of a group of contemporary photographers who are united towards formulating a new approach to deliberate photography. The qualifications for membership in this super-artistic movement consist of a peculiar assortment of personality traits, a profound lack of knowledge of photographic techniques, a distaste for so-called "salon" photography and a naive, egoistic-motivated willingness to be a party to the obtuse rantings of associates of The Museum of Modern Art. The photographs of Cartier-Bresson include a number of emotionally appealing examples that speak well for his artistic insight. Sprinkled among these are many common-place, unimpressive pictures that only add confusion to any serious attempt to understand his style. But an approach to the understanding of his work is certain to be less confused if based on a study of his pictures, rather than on the explanatory texts written by Messrs. Kirstein and Newhall. It is a sad commentary on the development of modern photography when promising young amateurs are exposed to such superficial, arty statements like, "Because Cartier-Bresson has developed technique to the point of almost instinctive reaction, he cannot tell you the film, lens and shutter settings, and other technical minutiae of each photograph he has made. In judging the exposure which is to be given he uses the film speed recommended by the expert laboratory technicians who develop his film. In this way maximum quality of shadow detail, contrast, and fineness of grain is assured." This is so utterly ridiculous that there is no wonder that sensible photographers question the sincerity of the so-called modernists. Continuing, the text includes even more far-fetched statements. "When it comes to making the final print he works in the darkroom. He alone is able to recreate the tonal values which he visualized at the time of exposure." Such drivel shows a total lack of understanding of the photographic process. If the modern trend for straightforward photography is to survive it had better rid itself of the uninformed charlatans who attempt to make it something that it is not.

Now, for fun, contrast that with a review of a book they did like:

AMERICA'S WILLIAMSBURG, by Gerald Horton Bath, photographs by Wendell MacRae, published by Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., Williamsburg, Va., 1946. 48 pages 7 by 8½ inches, many illustrations printed by Photogravure and Color Company, price 65 cents, postage included.

This is a most attractive booklet which tells why and how the historic capital of Virginia has been restored to its eighteenth century appearance by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. There are photographs on every page, with explanatory captions, and there is the story of Williamsburg as it was when it was the capital of one of the most influential of all of England's thirteen American colonies--as it became later, during the Revolutionary War, when the capital was moved to Richmond - and as it is now, after its restoration. There is a lot of very interesting subject material for the enthusiastic amateur photographer to be found in and around Williamsburg, and anyone who has not yet visited this unique Southern city should by all means make an effort to do so as soon as possible. Its main street, Duke of Gloucester Street, was described by the late President Roosevelt as "the most historic avenue in all America." Those who are interested in architecture will find in restored Williamsburg a perfect exhibition of painstaking research and skillful technique. For garden lovers it is an unparalleled delight. Artists and photographers will see it as an opportunity that is often hoped for but seldom found, and for those who are interested in antiques it is an adventure of a lifetime.

Here are some pages from the Williamsburg book, as I just happen to have a copy.

The pages from the American Photography, July, 1947.

The page preceding the Cartier-Bresson review? A Leica ad of course.

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