Moving from black and white to colour is not an epochal watershed that leaves some artists irrevocably behind. It is not like the change from silent films to talkies. “Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.” So said Helen Levitt, the great street photographer of New York who, like many others, simply chose the appropriate film for each particular thought. It has been known for a while that much of Levitt’s early work in colour was lost (stolen in the 1960s); in spite of that, Levitt is appreciated as a subtle and moving artist both in black and white and in colour.
Levitt was influenced by Cartier-Bresson (among others), but she was no slavish imitator. His view – devoted to anticipation, good reflexes, humour, and the use of composition to provide intellectual clues to the reading of a picture, and passionately opposed to messing about with the objects to be photographed – has become the template for a certain kind of street photography.
Cartier-Bresson cast a long shadow. This exhibition examines that shadow, with scholarship and sensitivity. It places colour photographs by a number of photographers with different solutions to Cartier-Bresson’s equations in challenging proximity to each other, and asks good rich questions about the role that colour plays.
Karl Baden photographs like an assassin, through the side window of his car. He’s in traffic, a truck draws up next to him; suddenly a huge bagel, drawn at a scale to be seen from tens of yards away, fills the window. Photo. There is a fashion for frames to be unobtrusive; Baden’s framing is anything but. The plasticky grey and the slightly odd shape (derived from wind-tunnel testing) of the inside of his cars tell us all we need to know. Baden is passing through, driving by.
Baden’s colour is the supersaturated boom of the modern demand for attention, isolated and strengthened like a double espresso. A green digger arm spends an instant almost parallel to the curves of the car window, arching over the red backside of a lady hurrying up the steps of a building.
Boris Savelev uses colour completely differently. For him, colour is an occasional treat, a reward for the hundreds of hours we spend in murk. Savelev’s colour seeps and spreads through light itself: it’s noticeable that he almost never records a lusty application of bright paint to a surface. His own extraordinary printing process reinforces the point: here’s one photographer for whom colour is not a surface decoration.
Others are moved by the come-hither promiscuity of modern commercial colour, and look for collision above all. Robert Walker, who likes to flatten the picture space until it creaks and strains with the sheer intensity of squashed graphic within, enjoys the constant disharmonious clashing of bright colours in the urban context. His is the famous picture of a kitchen apron from a Venice tourist store, on which a trompe-l’oeil male hunk in Venice-branded pants looks for a moment as if he might have been there in life, lurking between the aprons like the tourists on the other side of the picture.
Colour can be shrill or delicate, harmonious or dissonant. It can be used as the main emotional guide in a picture or merely as a thickener like rice or potatoes in a soup. Most of the group of photographers assembled here earned their living in commercial magazines, where colour is a fact of life, and black and white a pretension. Most of them, in fact, live or lived across the borders of teaching, magazines, personal work, grants, and so on. To that extent, they again follow Cartier-Bresson, who (insulated at first by a solid background of personal wealth) always refused to identify himself as a journalist.
What these photographers are not is a school. They have taken up Cartier-Bresson’s principles, with the addition of colour as another weapon in the armoury. One or two have even been accepted by Cartier-Bresson’s agency, Magnum. His influence runs deep. But they are not his school.
Cartier-Bresson, by the way, was suspicious whether colour reproduction in magazines would ever be good enough. He was also far less effective himself in colour than in black and white, which may have tinted his views. His gifts lay elsewhere. In timing, for one thing.
Some of the photographers here have a sense of timing as perfectly sharp as Cartier-Bresson’s. See the magic of Joel Meyerowitz in his view in New York, where a pair of lovers walk into hazy steam only for what look like their shadows to reappear mysteriously on the backs of two quite separate passers-by. See a wonderfully comical view by Fred Herzog of a man on a kerb, apparently hailing a cab. He has a bad bruise on the inside of his raised arm, his low arm is in a bandage, and he has blood only half-staunched by a peeling tissue on his chin. Behind him, prim and correct, is the little old lady of perfect parody, who looks fully capable of having inflicted these wounds. Alex Webb once photographed a passing surfer through the bull’s eye window in the parapet of a bridge. Karl Baden caught a lady doing handstands in a car park in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Photographers do get lucky. But it is funny how the harder they work, the luckier they get.
It is hard not to think of synaesthesia in this exhibition, that peculiar transference whereby some people “see” colours as smells or sounds or differences in heart cadence. Colour excites the brain.
The distinguished curator of this show, William Ewing, once wrote of Ernst Haas, the Austrian-born pioneer of colour photography, that “few of Haas’s colour pictures depend entirely on colour to succeed”. It applies to the others here too. This is a show of photography, not a show of colour work. It comes with an outstanding catalogue. Inevitably, a handful of pictures here work less well, or don’t work at all. It hardly matters which. There is much to wonder at in the relations of one kind of imagery to another. From Haas, Saul Leiter and Helen Levitt there is actual genius in the use of colour, and all of them were proving it before anybody had heard of William Eggleston.
By the way, there are black and white prints in the show too. A handful of the lesser-known of Cartier-Bresson’s, to be exact, which act as the measuring stick for all the works around. It would be hard not to enjoy a feast such as this.
‘Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour’, Somerset House, London, until January 27 2013