"Mexico, 1934," by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Via O SÉCULO PRODIGIOSO.
I stopped by SFMOMA last night to see Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century and Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. I’ll follow up on “Exposed” later, but I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on Bresson now.
The main thing on my mind as I walked through the exhibit was how very, very diverse Bresson’s body of work is. It would be easy to edit and sequence the photographs on display five or ten different ways to make Bresson’s work appear profoundly similar to five or ten entirely different photographers.
The second thing — which, to some extent, is an extension of the first — was a persistent ambivalence in regard to the work I was seeing.
Previously, I would have said that I agreed with Robert Frank’s statement that Bresson “traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a condemnation.) But now I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.
With Frank, the social criticism always floats to the surface, and Frank’s humor and artistry work in harmonious subordination to it. (Note: I wouldn’t necessarily consider that praise.)
With Bresson, it is hard to tell sometimes whether a subject is supposed to have mainly social/documentarian content, mainly humorous content, or mainly formal/abstract content. And I definitely do not think the three are working in balance or harmony, as they do in the work of, say, Roy DeCarava.
I think that in Bresson’s best photographs, one of these qualities is in ascendence at the cost of the others, while in other photographs (like the one above) the three are stuck in an uneasy or discordant association. And I think that makes those photographs — while not Bresson’s best — the ones that come closest to typifying his work as whole, and thus illustrating (and perhaps excusing) my mixed feelings regarding him.
Again, I don’t think this is necessarily a condemnation. It certainly doesn’t make Bresson’s photography uninteresting or unimportant, and if I drew that conclusion from my observations here, I would be perilously close to asserting consistency as a measure of worth in photography, which would be an awful idea. But I do find it helpful in understanding how I respond to his photography.
Apart from working that out, the main area of interest for me in the exhibit was the ability to examine both old prints (made by Bresson in a lower-contrast style typical of the 1930’s) and later prints (made by expert printers in the higher-contrast style that modern viewers generally expect). As you might expect if you read my post on albumen landscape prints, I tended to gravitate toward the lower contrast prints.