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Friday, 29 January 2010


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In 2006 I was in Amsterdam, and a friend and I were walking around on a bright winter day and stumbled across a gallery of HC-B prints. There were rooms full of them and we spent hours there. I would be inclined to agree with the book is better comment until I was able to see all of these prints on a single visit. All full frame prints as per his usual, and every one that captures a moment in time. It was awesome.

I remember being disappointed after seeing an HCB retrospective in Ottawa in the late 80s or early 90s. The images were great, but the prints weren't. Some pictures just work better in books.

Similarly, I never really liked Ralph Gibson's work until I happened onto a mid-70s Pop Photo (or Modern Photo?) a few years ago. There was tonality on that cheap newsprint that I had never seen in glossy books. I don't know if the effect was intentional, or if it was a mix-up in the PMT/printing process.

That must be third-degree humor (humour).
So, based on a 'seminal experience' of yours in a gallery showing Rothko's paintings under poor lighting, you're telling us we should bypass Cartier-Bresson exhibitions?
I have books and magazines showing the popular and also some quite rarely seen pictures of Cartier-Bresson. I saw several exhibitions of his work, as well as original loose prints. I'll trade any Rothko's show anytime for a Cartier-Bresson's. With decent lighting, please.

I beg to differ. Last year I saw a large retrospective of HCB in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. Many of the images, although not all, were familiar to me through books and magazines and the impact of well presented prints was, at least for me, far greater. The immediacy, the sense of the decisive moment, is better communicated by prints.

Joe, you're probably right. The original HCB prints that I have seen look pretty gray. But sometimes a guy just needs a road trip.

Interesting point. Just as a "yes, but" sort of reaction I vividly remember seeing exhibitions of the work of George Rodger and Eve Arnold, both of them at the Barbican in London and feeling that the extra depth that was present in the prints seemed to give me a deeper view into the photographers vision. Some sort of feeling of "being there" that I have not got from seeing any of those images in books.

Seeing actual prints is always enlightening- to one degree or another. In HCB's case, I remember being somewhat underwhelmed at what I expected to be a revelatory experience. Your observation is spot on- a well reproduced book on HCB will deliver the goods for those who can't attend the exhibit. Actual prints can be quite the experience- truer colors, exquisite tonal values, wall sized prints, the gallery experience alone... And large prints of large format work can be particularly astounding- and even Henry Wessel's immaculately printed 35mm prints (most under 16x20) were near miraculous to behold (particularly in light of his rather poorly reproduced monograph).

But when it came to HCB (and yes, I am a fan), it was well... enlightening for what it didn't yield in person.

I couldn't agree more. I attend every photography exhibition that comes to town (or that happens to be in the city I'm currently at), but for the style of photography I'm interested in I always valued books much more. One aspect that wasn't mentioned in Joe's text is that a book can put much more emphasis on things like sequence and juxtaposition. Think for example about Frank's "The Americans" and how he said that he wanted its readers to return to it several times like with a poem. That's something you can only do with a book.

The importance of the "vintage print" might also be a Western (or even US) thing influenced by artists like Ansel Adams. Japan, for instance, seems to value photo books much more. I recall a Kiyoshi Suzuki exhibition (in my home town Hamburg last year) where the main exhibits were Suzuki's original (and now very rare and expensive) books (which you were allowed to look at with gloves and under survey) while the prints on the wall were clearly more of an afterthought.

Two museum experiences in response to this.

One of the few times I've been moved to tears by visual art was maybe 20 years ago when I was wandering through the National Gallery in DC and stumbled into a roundish gallery that enclosed a series of large Rothko canvases. I was alone in the room. I sat quietly for a while taking them all in and then, much to my surprise, realized there were tears on my cheeks. There was some kind of mysterious power in those paintings that I still don't really understand.


A few years ago I was lucky enough to see a show at ICP called Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook, which was built around the tiny work prints that HC-B had made in preparation for the 1947 MOMA retrospective. It was amazing in that it showed many of the larger prints that appeared in that exhibition along with work prints from the same time frame, the same project, or even the same roll as the more famous images.

It was a rare opportunity to get a sense of a great photographer's editing process. It also demonstrated that the great man was not a great printer. And even the prints from the MOMA exhibition tended to back up Joe's point--they weren't really a better experience of the photographs then what's in well-printed collections of HC-B's work.

Now, if you are talking about Sally Mann (to pick a counter-example), then you want to get yourself to the gallery and see the prints that came off of her own hands--and not just because they are bigger than the books.

Also worth noting is that ICP sells a brilliant DVD title (no surprise) "The Decisive Moment." It's 18 minutes long. Made in 1973 and recently re-released by ICP, it has Cartier-Bresson narrating (in beautiful English) as we see a selection of his best work. Very few artists can talk about their work as clearly and directly as he does in this little film.

"Photography," he says, "can be a sketchbook, a weapon, a psychoanalyst's couch, a warm kiss."


As a lover/collector of both photography books and a few prints I must respectfully disagree. I am almost always amazed at how much more evocative and aesthetically pleasing actual photographic prints are compared with reproductions in books. Well printed photographs have a range of tones that I've rarely seen in a book. Silver process prints also reflect a kind of craftsmanship that I find appealing. If the photographer and the printer are not the same person, the photographic print becomes the end product of a kind of creative collaboration between the person who takes the photograph and the person who prints it.

I am lucky enough to own an HCB print. The image itself is wonderful. The photograph was printed by the great Parisian master printer, Voya Mitrovic, who, besides HCB, has printed for 40 yrs for photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Sebastio Salgado, Rene Burri, and now Peter Turnley. So the print seems to me to help take the image to an even higher level of expression. I am glad that Chicago is only a 5 hour drive from me, as I will certainly make time to see the HCB exhibit in Chicago this summer both for the images themselves given expression by a master printer.

Joe: Exactomundo! Yours is the point I tried to make in my reply to Mike's original exhibition announcement. HCB's imagery is already very well served by many excellent publications. I've not seen this particular exhibition's pieces but I have seen many dozens of his "original" prints, the actual sizes of which are generally 8x10.

I heartily encourage everyone to see the exhibition at MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, SFMoMA, or Atlanta's High Museum if possible. I'm sure it will be a rich presentation beyond sample prints. But, failing that, don't be disheartened if you have to settle for just seeing his work in a good book. Unlike, say, a Karsh or Burtynsky exhibit, you're not missing a big in-the-presence experience.

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