From Cartier-Bresson to Wolfgang Tillmans

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, by Peter Galassi Thames & Hudson RRP£55, 376 pages

Bernd & Hilla Becher: Hannover Coal Mine, text by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, Schirmer/Mosel RRP€68, 279 pages

Wolfgang Tillmans, edited by Sophie O’Brien and Melissa Larner, Koenig Books RRP£19.99, 128 pages

Crisis of the Real, by Andy Grundberg, Aperture RRP£12.95, 291 pages

“Photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time.” French film critic André Bazin wrote this in 1958, just when photography was entering the painterly mainstream in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” and Andy Warhol’s silkscreens. The medium was already more than a century old, and is now nearly two, but anxiety about its status – between museum and newsstand, studio and street, eternity and the ephemeral – has never left it. There exists no overarching history of photography as there does for painting, no heroic narrative of challenge and counter-challenge – cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop – to fix its modern evolution. The books here all attempt to fill that gap, claiming iconic stature for certain artists and probing what gives photography a unique place in the cultural canon.

The medium’s “deliciously impure” aesthetic was, says Peter Galassi, embodied in the hybrid art of Henri Cartier-Bresson. His wildly inventive 1930s images, inspired by surrealism, helped create photographic modernism, while his postwar reportage set an international benchmark. Both strands are showcased in Galassi’s account of his life and work, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, accompanying an exhibition currently touring from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to Chicago and San Francisco. The first significant study to appear since the photographer’s death in 2004, it is informed by half a century of friendship and the resources of Paris’s Cartier-Bresson Foundation, as well as bearing MoMA’s stamp in its zeal to define the beginnings of modernity. Epic in scope and hugely entertaining, it will shape our understanding of Cartier-Bresson for generations.

Like many great photographers born at the start of the last century, Cartier-Bresson trained as a painter, and his youthful photographs – a truncated nude torso shimmering under the Mediterranean, and a shadowy figure slicing across the badlands behind the Gare St Lazare among many examples here – belong, says Galassi, “to a world in which surrealism was still a fresh adventure”. They are the work of a patrician Frenchman intent on self-contained formal perfection, who still in his twenties “had the air of a girl in pyjamas” and turned up for military service with a rifle in one hand and a copy of Ulysses in the other. So Cartier-Bresson might have remained, had he not met irrepressible war photographer Robert Capa. “Watch out for labels,” Capa advised. “They’re reassuring but somebody’s going to stick one on you that you’ll never get rid of: ‘little surrealist photographer’. You’ll be lost, you’ll get precious and mannered. Take instead the label of ‘photojournalist’ and keep the other thing for yourself.”

Cartier-Bresson’s genius was to dovetail the two. “The anecdote is the enemy of photography,” he used to say. His images endure because of their masterly, complex compositions, yet repeatedly his decisive moments resonated with history’s turning points. He made his name on the road in Asia from 1947, where he grasped immediately that “we are paying for our grandfathers’ failure to foresee that the colonial system was not eternal”. He photographed Gandhi hours before his assassination. His shot of the gold rush in Shanghai on the eve of the 1948 communist takeover is a lasting symbol of crowds panicked by any change of regime. His comic, sexy masterpiece showing Nehru sharing a joke with Edwina Mountbatten outside Government House in New Delhi while her husband Louis, aloof in white-dress uniform, waits to step down as governor-general “deftly equates the personal humiliation of cuckoldry with the geopolitical humiliation of losing the jewel in the Crown”, says Galassi.

Although his medium depended on mechanisation, Cartier-Bresson’s sympathies lay with age-old patterns of life: Muslim women in burkas at evening prayer, moving unpredictably; Jaipur princes with their elephants at a wedding; Beijing teahouses where customers are accompanied by their caged birds. For such photo-reportage of a continent in violent transition, surrealism turned out to have been the perfect apprenticeship. And as Galassi adroitly shows, Cartier-Bresson’s surprising juxtapositions balance the authenticity of “the messy world” with the magical.

Squaring that circle of truthfulness with formal beauty and enchantment was probably only possible for the first, thrilled wave of international photojournalists. Cartier-Bresson, who hated aircraft (“a silly way of travelling, most unintelligent if not unsafe”), was prophetic about how ease of travel would create “generations of little cretins, especially in our line of work”. Few single images served newspapers and gallery walls simultaneously as his had done, and photographers seeking original expression were forced into more oblique or manipulative positions. Among the most influential in claiming “documentation as a definitive art form” were Bernd and Hilla Becher, who from the 1960s spent a lifetime photographing relics of another disappearing way of life: the industrial architecture of west Germany. Hannover Coal Mine, featuring 200 stark, chilly, mournful, unvarnished monochromes shot from differing angles, is an elegant monument to one of their most celebrated series, accompanied by a careful commentary based on the Bechers’ own analysis of their work.

If Cartier-Bresson emerged from surrealism, the Bechers’ idiosyncratic oeuvre is as rooted in the culture of their time: minimalism, seriality and the postwar rise of welded sculpture, using machine parts and industrial debris, such as that of David Smith and Jean Tinguely. The Bechers’ strict vertical and horizontal alignments of chimneys, cooling towers, gas tanks, storage silos, warehouses and rail tracks recall the minimalist grid – but crossed with the poignancy of documentary realism: often the different buildings in these industrial complexes appear to line up and close ranks like figures in a group photograph.

This account emphasises the Bechers’ acute artistry, insistence on the right light, grading of tonal values, pristine finishes, immaculate presentation of each building caught from a low vantage point to loom monumentally on the horizon – legacies of Cartier-Bresson and especially of August Sander’s Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) photographs. As Sander does in “People of the 20th Century”, the Bechers present each industrial structure as a portrait of an individual who is a member of a collective type; that all Bernd Becher’s ancestors worked in the mining industry underlines the symbolism of the anthropomorphised buildings as memorials to the men who operated them.

The Bechers called their images “a self-representation of our society”, just as cathedrals reveal the medieval world view or castles the feudal. Arresting time, they are also suffused with loss and the pathos of irrecoverable distance. They are a key link between the prewar photographic avant-garde and the potent late 20th-century photographic genre of architectonic alienation – Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer were all Becher students in Düsseldorf. Each is driven by an archival impulse, referencing the documentary form, yet makes photographs for museum walls, not newspapers.

A decade younger, Wolfgang Tillmans, born a few miles south of Düsseldorf in 1968, has always made art from images of everyday life, but to develop his own vision he moved to London in 1990. Here he quickly became a sort of advance-guard, in his freewheeling appropriations, conceptual intelligence and cool, matter-of-fact aesthetic – especially around gay sexuality – for the phenomenon of the Young British Artists. Wolfgang Tillmans, accompanying his current show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, marks 20 years of work and includes an incisive essay by Michael Bracewell, a pertinent interview and a vast bank of recent photographs.

“Everywhere, all the time and at once”, Bracewell’s title, suggests the all-embracing nature of Tillmans’ double exploration of “the world at large” and of photography itself. Some works illustrated here, such as the marvellous “we summer”, depicting partygoers seen against a film of floating bubbles, embody Tillmans’ mix of virtuosity and absolute democracy of spirit. Others play on cutting-edge technology – “in flight astro (ii)”, for example, has a luminosity dependent on the heightened light sensitivity of the latest digital cameras. But Tillmans’ real flair, in both gallery installations and books, is to present his photographs as a Gesamtkunstwerk turning on unexpected contiguities between his diverse subjects: here ranging from a baby in a car seat, metal machine parts, the sunburnt nape of a man’s neck and a rear view of “haircut”, to a washed-out crouching figure in “like praying (faded fax)”, the vibrant “bio bees”, lyrical landscapes of forests – quintessentially German, and recalling Anselm Kiefer – and a group of abstractions.

The overall effect is indeed to embalm the way we live now, in full colour and high energy, but with our sense of reality diminished and exhausted by image overload. Susan Sontag famously called photography “the only art natively surreal”. This is Tillmans’ conceptual starting point: he belongs to the post-Sontag generation where “travelling between degraded and glamorous realities is part of the very momentum of the photographic enterprise”. But then he sets out to win back authenticity for the image by what he calls “absolute truth to the medium”. His digital manipulations are therefore “super obvious” – a figure removed and spray paint added to “Heidelberg”, an image of motorcyclists in protective gear, for example. His abstractions in corn yellow, sky blue, jet black, refer to photography’s essence: transforming light into coloured pictures on paper. Thus Tillmans slows us down to show us ourselves, and this book confirms him as among our most thoughtful and upbeat conceptual artists.

The most intriguing contemporary photographs, says New York critic Andy Grundberg, are those where everything is “simultaneously true and false, authentic and artificial”. Crisis of the Real, a new edition of Grundberg’s essays on photography since 1974, is a consistently enlightening guide to what he calls “the concrete, immediate and unruly realms I confront when looking at camera pictures”, and also a sympathetic distillation of postmodern critical thinking. As a condensed history of American camera artists from Alfred Steiglitz and Ansel Adams to Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, making connections across a century and balancing end-of-empire reflection with enthusiasm for photography’s continuing potential, it is an exhilarating account.

Grundberg opens with Jean Baudrillard’s critique of late 20th-century America – “no longer real but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation”. Photography, posited “as a nearly indiscriminate producer of images”, is the most responsible of all the arts for postmodern discontents “that we are at the end of the line, that we are all prisoners of what we see”. He closes with the advance of the digital – the technology that finally convinced us that “images exist not to be believed but to be interrogated”. Largely as a result, his prediction in 1989 that 21st-century photography, in its fabrications and self-consciousness, “will look less like the world and more like art” has come true.

All these volumes chart key moments in that journey, and if none quite pin down the form which Roland Barthes called “neither image, nor reality, a new being, really”, that too is a celebration of photography’s particular intellectual elusiveness.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief art critic and author of ‘Chagall: Love and Exile’ (Penguin)

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