In an age of artistic and other excesses, the spare, self-limiting photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson offers an antidote: a philosophy of the absolute minimum of art. So I was thinking as I made my way round one of the best small exhibitions I have seen for a while, entitled Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour (see the FT’s review: “Out of the Shadows”), curated by William A Ewing, which still has a week to run at Somerset House in London.
The title is mischievous, as every photography buff knows that Cartier-Bresson disdained colour (“It’s something indigestible, the negation of all photography’s three-dimensional values,” he once said). He did occasionally take on colour commissions – the show includes some striking magazine photo-shoots of China and Indonesia – but black and white remained his chosen medium. The Somerset House show has 10 small, black-and-white prints, previously unexhibited in the UK, of American city scenes by Cartier-Bresson – juxtaposed with the colour work of 14 other photographers influenced by the French master’s theory of the decisive moment.
If the Cartier-Bresson photographs stand out it is not for the most obvious reasons. They are not only lacking in the striking colour effects used by photographers as different as Karl Baden and Boris Savelev; they are also tonally fairly muted and sparing of obvious light or shadow contrasts.
Cartier-Bresson used a small hand-held Leica and refused to work up or even crop his prints in the darkroom. For him the decisive moment was everything, the capturing by eye, brain and heart working together “of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes”.
But that still doesn’t say enough, or explain why Cartier-Bresson’s images reach parts others do not. Here one needs to go by the way of negation. Cartier-Bresson, even when employed to be one, was not a photo-journalist. Perhaps the most dramatic single image in the Somerset House exhibition, Melanie Einzig’s “September 11th, New York, 2011”, shows a uniformed delivery man concentrating on delivering a package in Lower Manhattan, while behind him, against the flawless late summer blue sky, smoke billows from the tops of the two towers. It is a brilliant, unforgettable photograph but it is not, I think, a shot Cartier-Bresson would have chosen to take, even if he had been there.
If Cartier-Bresson was not a photo-journalist, neither was he a satirist or purveyor of grotesquerie. In Joel Meyerowitz’s “5th Avenue, New York City”, a large woman with fleshy arms and a supercilious expression clutches a book called The American Character. Melanie Einzig’s “New York, New York, 2007”, shows a man clamping his mobile phone with his right hand to his left ear while drinking coffee from a cup held in his left hand (you could try this yourself; the effect is like some strange religious practice).
I especially enjoyed the work of Karl Baden: the car through whose passenger window Baden frames his shots seems to have pitched up in some Swiftian alternative planet, populated by giant doughnuts, mysterious shiny balls and groups of women dressed in identical, unearthly green dresses.
The effects of these photographers are all more obviously brilliant, pointed and striking than those achieved by Cartier-Bresson with his workaday Leica and ascetic method. But the planet Cartier-Bresson was concerned with is planet Earth, inhabited by humans, not aliens.
He had an unerring instinct and eye for what is most truly, deeply human. Workers in “Fish Market, Fulton Street, Manhattan, New York, 1946”, are simultaneously humble, statuesque and heroic.
This is what socialist realism should have looked like, if it had not been coerced into propaganda. A man slumped over a lunch tray in a diner, in “Brooklyn, New York, 1947”, his bald pate shining out towards the viewer, his hat on the table, is a tragic, quasi-Biblical study in utter exhaustion. One of the saddest psalms would not look out of place beside it.
Photography was not an end in itself for Cartier-Bresson. Sometimes he suggested his true vocation was painting. But then you would have to ask what the end of painting was. In a late interview, Cartier-Bresson quoted Francis Bacon (the Renaissance philosopher, not the painter): “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is, in itself, a nobler thing than a whole harvest of inventions.”
Artists are often prone to substitution and imposture, to idealising what might appear ugly, or colouring everything with the cast of their mind. Cartier-Bresson was one of those rare, truthful artists who acted as a medium or mouthpiece for what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl called “the things themselves”. The German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus was another: he was accused in his time of excessive objectivity, and of gracelessness. I don’t hear that when I listen to him: I hear the music coming through him with vigour and honesty, with profound sadness and with dancing, infectious joy.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres