I unshackled my leg from the desk yesterday and escaped to Chicago, where I saw the Henri Cartier-Bresson show with Ken Tanaka.
Ken, who started out as a fan and a booster of TOP, has become a friend. We first met at the first show we saw together, the great Eggleston retrospective earlier this year. Ken lives a hop skip and a jump from the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), and he's involved with the institution in some sort of way I'm unable to accurately report, so he knows the curators and gets to attend a lot of the insider events and so forth—and I kid him that the AIC is actually his private collection, as by his own admission he spends so much time in the building. He was seeing the Cartier-Bresson exhibit for the ninth time when he saw it with me. Seeing photographs is always good, and seeing lots of photographs is even better, and a visit to the Art Institute is always a pleasure. But to see a show in the erudite, engaging, and yet completely unpretentious company of Ken Tanaka greatly amplifies the experience. A fun day, well worth the drive and the Chicago traffic.
I'm afraid I have to give the show itself a decidedly mixed review. Although the public response has been extraordinary, it's really an exhibit "by scholars for scholars," rather than a show for popular delectation. From an aesthetic standpoint, the selection is deep but in some ways puzzling: despite being overlong by twice, a lot of the great pictures are missing, and a large number of second-rate ones are present. There are plentiful "extra value" components, most notably a completely magnificent map of the world showing Cartier-Bresson's lifetime travels in glorious detail, and a single Magnum print presented next to a good reproduction of its own backside, showing all of the publication marks, stamps, and notes that it accumulated over its lifetime as a press photo. Fascinating.
The biggest disappointment by far is that many of the prints are just horrible. It is "vintagism" taken to an absurd extreme when truly great—I mean great—masterpieces are presented only in early repro prints that were originally fully intended to be ephemeral, two paper grades too soft and fogged and dimmed by time. It's one thing when the photographer is an independent artist and you're showing his or her original thoughts about a new work; it's quite another to pretend that the initial work-product of a working photographer has any of the same import or presence, or adequately reflects his intent. Really, the fastidiousness of scholarship has overwhelmed the viewer's interests—and good sense—in many cases here. I wouldn't say that bad prints predominate—there are a lot of adequate ones and some good ones too*—but if you get the catalog, I think you'll find that the catalog reproductions are far preferable to many of the original prints on view! A strange reversal of the ordinary case.
So: recommended, but with real reservations. To reiterate: it's good to see photographs, and great to see H.C.-B. photographs. Lots of good and interesting things here; rewards on every wall. I'm certainly not sorry I went, and I doubt anyone else would be. But it's a deeply flawed show. It makes a weak case for H.C.-B. as a dominant artist in our field, although it's probably more interesting for those who already know he is. And it isn't what today's public deserves as a celebration of his greatness. Show me half as many pictures in their best printed form, even if it's not their earliest printed form. I'd take that any day.
Although I'd still want to see that marvelous map!
*I don't know this for sure, but, although there is a wide range of prints in the show that probably originated from many different sources, I'd bet there are very few Voja Mitrovic prints in this particular show: that is, they're not the prints M. Cartier-Bresson would have had made when a collector would wish to buy one from him or from one of his galleries.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
"But I think it’s easy for (us) photo enthusiasts to inadvertently mis-read the curatorial objectives of this show. We see Henri Cartier-Bresson as a icon of photographic artistic talent. But that’s not what Peter Galassi, the show’s curator, is principally attempting to illustrate. Rather, the principal conceptual theme of the show is to present a wide-angled view of the enormous body of work by an extraordinarily talented and energetic man with a camera. The gigantic travel history maps on the walls at the exhibit’s entrance serve to drive the point that visitors will see photographs of history at key points during 'The Modern Century' as captured by Cartier-Bresson’s camera. Art, in this case, is a delightful but secondary feature. Indeed, Cartier-Bresson himself repeatedly denied that his camera work was art. He considered himself to be, first and foremost, a journalist with a camera. That’s why he co-founded Magnum as a news photo cooperative agency.
"So undoubtedly many photography enthusiasts will be disappointed with the flatness of many of this exhibition’s prints. It’s also true that several well-known images have been omitted from the show. (Although with 300 pieces they’re hard to miss.) And you may be correct that scholarship has sent art to the back-seat. But that was the intention. 'Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century' is designed principally to illustrate the remarkable events and inflection periods of 'The Modern Century' that this astonishing photographer witnessed and captured during his long career.
"I will say, though, that having seen the show so many times (with a few more viewings still to come) I believe that the pictures on the walls are, in this case, mainly evidential by-products. The wonderful catalog is the real gem of Peter Galassi’s curatorial work. I always encourage folks to see the show. But this is one example where, failing such an opportunity, the catalog text will more than fairly compensate you for your absence."
Featured Comment by timd: "I had a similar experience a while back at the Robert Capa exhibition at the Barbican in London—small dingy prints.
"I came away feeling that the show was neither here nor there; it was neither a show of images, because the prints were small and dull, nor an one of archival/historical materials, because there wasn't enough of that material on display and the materials that were shown weren't contextualized.
"It was very interesting to see the heroic photojournalist myth-making: old magazines featuring the work of the 'world's greatest photo journalist'; and to see how much the images were changed/manipulated when they appeared in print—e.g., elements from two photos merged into one image.
"It would have been interesting, given all of the discussion over the veracity of one of his photos, to have seen some of the exchanges between Capa and the publishers over the alterations they made to his photos—if there was any—but the magazines were just displayed without comment. (The images looked better in these old magazines from the '30s than on the wall.)"
Mike replies: I actually expend a lot of effort trying to figure out the best way to experience any given photographer—often it would be an "ideal" show, although those are rare and I get to attend very few shows in any event. Often it's an effort to find those books that have the best selection of images and the most appropriate and pleasing reproduction. Those are hard to come by too, but not as hard. Increasingly we are seeing better and better web presentations, and I'm awaiting the day when we start seeing full exhibits on the web presented purposefully. I'm always happy when I come across any "good enough" way to see a good representation of a photographer I'm interested in.Featured Comment by John Camp: "I've known a lot of photojournalists, and I don't think any of them would want an exhibit of their photos, shown in a museum, to be selected from their first publication prints. For one thing, printers working for a newspaper or magazine or wire service tried to optimize the print for whatever printing technology was involved—and that often meant over-contrasty prints because of the poor materials (newsprint) on which the photo would ultimately be printed. And because the print itself would only be used for a few hours before winding up on a printing plate (and often ruined in that process), they frequently were barely fixed at all—just a quick shot of fixer and if it all went gray the next day, so what? You just make another. Those same photographers, when making prints for photojournalism contests (the state AP contests, etc.) would frequently spend hours making 'show' prints. Those prints, not their publication prints, represented the best they could do, and their best vision of the work....
"I think the emphasis on vintage prints is weird, and is basically just a way to monetize the product of a medium in which the potential identical copies of the product are virtually infinite. Critics and authorities argue that vintage prints best reflect the artist's original intent; but that's like arguing that Mahler would attempt to always conduct his symphonies with exactly the same inflection because otherwise, they would be inauthentic. That's absurd—any composer would try to make his compositions 'better' as the years pass, as Ansel Adams tried to make his prints better as technology improved.
"In other words, showing less than the best quality prints of HCB's work I'm sure wouldn't reflect his intent or his wishes—it simply reflects the quality of mechanical reproduction available at his time, and the need to make (deliberately defective) prints that would best utilize that machinery."