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Friday, 16 April 2010

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"There's a fine show review by the admirable Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker called "Picture Perfect" that you can read online."

That sentence should continue "...PROVIDED you run it through Readability (http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/) first."

Holy cow. There is so much stuff crowding the tiny text on the New Yorker web page, it gives me a headache just looking at it. Yes, I know the font size is adjustable. But if I'm going to click to adjust the font size, I might as well click on my Readability button.

For anyone who had never tried Readability: do. One of the most useful "things"* I have come across in the past year or so.

Best regards,
Adam

*I have no idea what to call it. A web site? A program? A gadget? A plug-in? A doo-hickey?

HI Mike,

Thanks for your mention of the HCB MOMA exhibition and the New Yorker review. I attended the opening of the show and read the article. It is an interesting contrarian piece.

So much of my life has been influenced by the work and spirit of HCB's view of the world. I first began making photographs at the age of 16 after receiving a book by HCB, "The Face of Asia" while in a hospital bed with a high school football injury. I went to Paris in 1975 and then to live full time for more than 20 yrs., largely because of a spirit I found there that was embodied in the work of people like HCB, Doisneau, Boubat, Kertesz, and Brassai.

I worked as a printer for a stint at the famed photography lab in Paris, "Picto" where HCB's prints were printed, and used to look occasionally at his contact sheets kept in a special room at the lab during my lunch hour. When HCB would come in to sign his collector prints-it always felt like a blessed moment.
I had many memorable encounters with Henri up until his death. The man that printed his images for more than 30 yrs., Voya Mitrovic, is one of my closest friends and prints my work today.

I feel that what was missing in the New Yorker piece about HCB's work is something that goes way beyond photography. HCB's work for me has always touched on something fundamental about a view of the world and life--a faith in what can be--his images inform of us the notion that if we keep our eyes and hearts open, there is a "Cartier" diamond in the rough waiting to be seen in the common moments of daily life. It touches on the notion that if we are open to it, each day when we walk out the door--our life can be changed--and for me this notion has always come close to something almost more spiritual than photographic. Thanks, Peter

That was an interesting read. I generally find Peter Schjeldahl impenetrable, but he helps himself out by the Robert Frank quote.

I think it's an easy target to say a photographer isn't connecting emotionally with his subjects, but I can see why in HCB's case it could be said to be so.

It reminded me of Robert Capa on how he relaxed his subjects "like people and let them know it".

Mike,
You should mention that after MOMA, the show is traveling across the US to cities such as San Francisco and Atlanta.

Hagiographic. What an excellent word. What an educational site is this.

Basically what it is that Schjeldahl is saying that he's got reservations about is that HCB photographs more from the head than from the heart. By implication, I guess things are just a little too perfect to really be "lifelike.' Like Ansel, and unlike Robert Frank..

It should probably be mentioned that the new MoMA/Galassi catalog contains quite a few photos which should be interesting even to those who already have a large HCB collection (because they haven't been published in books so far).

Cartier-Bresson's images make my heart swell within me. Life is so full of life. If only we could all be as perceptive of its fullness as Mr. Cartier-Bresson.

The New Yorker has posted an interesting followup - a series of questions and answers titled "Ask the Author Live: Peter Schjeldahl"

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/ask/2010/04/questions-for-schjeldahl.html

For your West Coast readers, The HCB show will move to the SF MOMA beginning October 30, 2010:

http://www.sfmoma.org/exhibitions/409

Well worth seeing, if possible, although Peter's catalog is wonderful if you can't (or even if you can!). It may seem like the same ol' same ol' HCB but there are images and perspectives that I'm sure will be new to most everyone, even hard-core fans.

This exhibition will be moving here to the Art Institute of Chicago in July.

Zlatko,
Or *not* answering questions. I'm not a big fan of that format. I could have done a better job of answering some of those particular questions....

Mike

When I started photography five years ago as a serious hobby, I was not aware of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. I was not institutionalized to unquestionably value their work based on reputation alone, and it was simply their photos that placed them high on my list of favorite photographers. Frank's "The Americans" is one of the most remarkable photographic essays I've seen, and its technical deficiencies will forever sabotage quality's supposed reliance on evolving modernity.

Anyway, I found Peter Schjeldahl's appropriation of Frank's words to undercut Cartier-Bresson entertaining, and to a degree, understandable. Still, I am struggling to accept the critique on Bresson, one often directed at Elliott Erwitt as well, that his abnormally keen talent to manifest the aesthetic failed somewhat to extend beyond nothing more than a mere visual patina, clever and intriguing, but "numbing the heart." I appreciate that this subjective, and I am not in position to deny (though perhaps refute) another person's view of Ansel Adam's work as cold.

However, this raises questions about the purpose of photography, and to what extent it has 'soul' or acts just as an illustrative allure. I can only recount from my own experience, but during the past five years, coming upon Bresson's works (sometimes initially oblivious to his involvement) seldom left me feeling as though I just suffered through a Linda Ronstadt cover that neutered a perfectly acceptable Elvis Costello or Warren Zevon original. But then, maybe my perception is stunted, swindled by a compositional glory that blinds me of the deeper search. Yet, I can still delineate the visceral between a Bresson and a Don McCullin; it's just that I don't demand synchronization of style to whirl up deep thoughts. Again, blame my apparent simplicity.

In a videotaped interview, Garry Winogrand argued that photos don't usually tell a story, as we really don't know the context immediately before or after the exposure. His characteristically provocative claim is undoubtedly debatable, but aspects within are worthy of consideration. Going back to Frank's "The Americans," the viewer is typically positioned to reach a viewpoint, one devoid of sentiment and awash in scrutiny; the disillusionment. Yet, individually, where do some of those photos stand? By page 30, Frank could have inserted a picture of babies playing with puppies in a garden, and ominous interpretations would still arise invariably from some.

On another photography site, a member commented about how sinister Frank's subjects appeared, citing the mostly hidden Navy recruiter with feet on the desk and the lurking cowboy in the New Mexico bar. Yet, what do we actually know about these people? How should we judge them, or should we judge them at all? It reminds me of the Sex Pistols' "I Wanna be Me," with Rotten blurting out: "I got you in the camera / I got you in my camera / A second of your life / Ruined for life." Not all that is good requires a cause, and not all that has a cause is immune from its own platitudes, if not dangerous deceptions.

Bresson's case is possibly hurt, because his output, to some extent, reflects his wealthy blessings, but then wouldn't this be his most sincere path; after all, such frivolity didn't really demean the value of Jacques-Henri Lartigue's precocious offerings either (in regards to Bresson, Schjeldahl suggests as much himself). And it is the authenticity under the aesthetic that provides the weight, irrespective of the cause, or lack of such. For the sake of argument, though, let's say it was only the lines, geometry, and the 'superfluous' beauty that compelled Bresson to photograph the four Kashmiri women perched seemingly mystical atop a hill. I found it moving, without form for its own sake distracting at all, and isn't this what ultimately matters?

I saw a Cartier-Bresson exhibition in Tokyo nearly three years back, and now that I am living in NYC, I will happily attend the MOMA exhibition.

IMO Schjeldahl got it backwards in one part of his review, through what looks like an art-history error. Cartier-Bresson didn't subject photography to classicism in the mode of Poussin. He stepped out of modernism, not classicism. He awakened and refreshed the cool and often angular modernism of his time – in photography, painting, sculpture, architecture ¬– with the immediate on-the-spot humanism that ‘street photography’ was so suited to capture.

Schjeldahl is right to recognize HCB’s passion for ‘geometrie,’ but it was a modernist geometry employed in the service of lively human curiosity. His curiosity looked, saw, and captured, that’s all. It stopped short of either sentimentality or social commentary. We may love Ronis, Doisneau, etc., for their superior representation of sentiment, but that just wasn’t HCB’s place in photography. We can also appreciate stronger social and political commitments among other Magnum founders, and can relish social commentaries through irony (as in The Americans). But again those weren’t HCB’s roles in the history of photography. He was just what he said, a hunter of the coincidences of form and feeling that have no better name than ‘decisive moments.’ They're really not throwbacks to Classicism.

I'd have to agree with Peter Turnley on the Schjeldahl article... Peter Turnley's last paragraph puts it quite well. I think the lack of elevation that the Frank quote speaks to, and that Schjeldahl attempts to explain (not as well, in many words, as Frank in so few), is a strong unifier, where life is life, and beautiful moments abound, irrespective of political or social significance. This makes Cartier-Bresson, well, different from a lot of other photographers, who try to convey meaning beyond aesthetics.

I am not prepared to say which method is better, more important, or anything along those lines, but I am prepared to say that I think the flattening of many moments considered to be of differing import into a more or less equivalent aesthetic package is a significant political achievement, really, and well in line with the surrealism and socialism that were Cartier-Bresson's aesthetic and political inclinations. Schjeldahl likes Cartier-Bresson's photographs of leisure and pleasure best, and that is his right, yet with this he misses the broad strength of the unified hand, its capacity to pluck those "Cartier 'diamonds in the rough' " that Peter Turnley so eloquently describes in his comment.

hagiographic - now this made me look it up - on a Friday afternoon after work no less - it was painful but I did it. I've read both the New Yorker review and the NY Times and both compared HCB to Robert Frank - not sure why tho'.

I agreed with Schjeldahl's piece and thought it was very well done and perceptive. I also agree, vehemently with Peter Turnley's comment, here. Art's complex in'it?

Dave

When photojournalism today is about finding pain and suffering in life, it's hard to be critical of someone who made an effort to find beauty in it.

Thanks Mike. Found something make the day - Brushes, which use to draw The New Yorker Cover. My sons download it and within minute draw a very nice picture (and print out using a simple OfficeJet very nicely).

Is there a list somewhere online of other cities the exhibition will visit? I really want to see this but it's hard for me to get to NYC.

“He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” The problem of Cartier-Bresson’s art is the conjunction of aesthetic classicism and journalistic protocol: timeless truth and breaking news.

Sorry but I don't get how the New Yorker reviewer gets this impression from HCB's work. Frankly most of us would do well to achieve beauty and composition in our photography. It's all hogwash - saying this as I'm plotting out which city to travel to to see the exhibit!

From Zlatko's link, "Ask the Author":

"QUESTION FROM LOU G.: Would be interested to know how you would compare and contrast C-B’s work to that of Willy Ronis.

PETER SCHJELDAHL: How embarrassing is it that I don’t know the work of Willy Ronis? I am embarrassed to precisely that extent."

***

Which is to say, not embarrassed? Reading that whole "ask the author" link, I'm struggling a bit with Schjeldahl himself -- he seems to not engage anything not of immediate interest to his person. He's terse to the point of being reductive, and seems to prefer to nitpick the questions on offer as if they merely reveal fault in the questioners themselves.

So who is this Schjeldahl guy? Well, one can read a terrific (or terrifically acerbic) put down of Schjeldahl's entire POV here ( http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/A-very-Sixties-person--Peter-Schjeldahl-on-art-4606 ). Of course, a guy like Roger Kimball is going to have his own axe to grind, and in his world, all 60s hippies are fair game.

Still, it doesn't seem a stretch to say this review of Henri Carter-Bresson is more about Schjeldahl than Carter-Bresson; it's almost as if Carter-Bresson's established canonic state is something Schjeldahl cannot possibly profit from critically by championing, so instead he opts to snipe from the wayside with this tone of "it leaves me cold." Maybe Schjeldahl is a Baudrillardian figure, enchanted not by the Grand Canyon but the grocery store discovered on the way back. Sure, he admits one picture after another is magnificent, but at the same time he can't get excited about it.

Perhaps Carter-Bresson doesn't enmesh well with Schjeldahl's Pop-art sensibility. Certainly Carter-Bresson is not "NEW / NOW / IN YOUR FACE" or otherwise of the tradition of épater la bourgeoisie. Schjeldahl loves the (faux, in my opinion) frisson of contradiction, so if you're scratching your head, my guess is he thinks his work is done.

I'm certainly not exhaustively familiar with Carter-Bresson (painting was more my thing), but what I do sense is that his pictures are formally very strong. Line, shadow, weight, balance, pressure: formal qualities are at the front, even pushing onto the subjects themselves. These qualities perhaps overwhelm the social "story" or narrative in the pictures that others want to eek out.

At least that's what I see in Carter-Bresson, or want to.

I understand Schjeldahl has little patience for formalism; e.g., according to Kimball he once called Clement Greenberg “the Reverend Moon of art criticism." (Wow.) It is, it seems, eternally fashionable for sons to want to slay their fathers, so I get Schjeldahl's equivocating about Carter-Bresson.

But that doesn't make, in turn, his equivocation interesting.

Can't wait to see the show.

"I'm struggling a bit with Schjeldahl himself -- he seems to not engage anything not of immediate interest to his person. He's terse to the point of being reductive, and seems to prefer to nitpick the questions on offer as if they merely reveal fault in the questioners themselves."

Timo,
Yours is a good comment, no argument, but to be fair to PS, the format is really deficient--it's one of those "live chat" things where the questions come thick and fast and the writer is expected to answer in real time. He doesn't have time to formulate thoughtful responses or even to do the amount of typing that's called for.

I just don't like the format. It's inherently superficial and unsatisfying. Direct and immediate, yes, but that's the only advantage.

Mike

Intellectual and emotional context always matters. HC-B was influenced by Japanese buddhist ways of looking at the world and there is something of that in his work. The 'cold' formalism that Schjeldahl sees as merely a lack of feeling on the photographer's part is instead a emotional sensibility profoundly empathetic to the wheel of life, and the formalism that the universe itself manifests regardless of individual self-centredness. If anything, in connecting the human individual to that larger background is something deeply emotional, and works a layer or two underneath conscious aesthetic or emotional awareness.

Or so methinks.

"a guy like Roger Kimball is going to have his own axe to grind"

Timo,
Never trust anyone who wears a bow tie.

Mike

MIke

There's constraints inherent to a format, and then there's "punting." You can almost hear PS drumming his fingers, waiting for quitting time.

Timo
(doesn't own a bow tie)

Mr. Cartier-Bresson was the son of an ancien regime and extremely wealthy business man who throughout his life was cushioned with heaps of cash and who had no understanding of making a living. Think nannies and servants. This type of 'freedom' breeds the arrogance and tunnel vision that you see in the interviews. My favorite Henri day of reckoning is when Martin Parr is elected to enter his sacred domain...

I have written 2 posts on Cartier-Bresson and I think they continue the discussion of his work and Peter Schjeldahl's New Yorker review.
Here are links to them.

http://blog.gregbenson.com/2010/04/cartier-bresson.html

http://blog.gregbenson.com/2010/04/frank-comment-on-cartier-bresson.html

I had wanted to go to this exhibit last Saturday, since I had to take care of some work early in the morning in lower Manhattan and had the pm free. I gave up that idea because the line for tickets went around the block.

So I bought a ticket online for today and played hooky from work, arriving at MoMA just at opening time. Again, the line was around the block, but with ticket in hand, I breezed through. Turns out that there is a Tim Burton (film director) exhibit (sold out), and an exhibit of some kind of performance art (on the same floor as HCB) featuring stationary and semi-stationary nude men and women. This had been on tv and in the press because a few patrons felt compelled to touch the artwork, much to the consternation of the models (artees?).

Anyway, after five minutes giving in to lasciviousness, on to HCB. Huge exhibit, as described elsewhere, broken down pretty much chronologically. Nice captioning and explanation of the themes.

Something was missing for me, though. I was very disappointed. Looking at the prints, one thing that struck me was the poor print quality. Granted, some of the prints are 40 or 50 years old. But I guess what really bothered me was that the photos, for the most part, seemed pretty pedestrian. Grab shots. I wondered how many duds there were for every one in the exhibit?

According to the descriptions accompanying the show, HCB gave up darkroom work early on, giving his attention to the images. I can't fathom how he could let somebody else interpret the image in the print. It is like painting in air, without canvas.

Although I have no firm memory of it, I seem to recall going to a previous HCB retrospective at ICP in NYC in the 70s, when it was in a mansion uptown. I still have the massive NY Graphic Society exhibition catalog. I think I must have enjoyed that exhibition much more than this.

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