"From memory, this is my impression of what the print of this picture looked like in the show." — Mike Johnston
Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer has some interesting observations about the Bresson show that’s making the rounds:
Although the public response has been extraordinary, it’s really an exhibit “by scholars for scholars,” rather than a show for popular delectation. From an aesthetic standpoint, the selection is deep but in some ways puzzling: despite being overlong by twice, a lot of the great pictures are missing, and a large number of second-rate ones are present….
The biggest disappointment by far is that many of the prints are just horrible. It is “vintagism” taken to an absurd extreme when truly great—I mean great—masterpieces are presented only in early repro prints that were originally fully intended to be ephemeral, two paper grades too soft and fogged and dimmed by time. It’s one thing when the photographer is an independent artist and you’re showing his or her original thoughts about a new work; it’s quite another to pretend that the initial work-product of a working photographer has any of the same import or presence, or adequately reflects his intent. Really, the fastidiousness of scholarship has overwhelmed the viewer’s interests—and good sense—in many cases here. I wouldn’t say that bad prints predominate—there are a lot of adequate ones and some good ones too*—but if you get the catalog, I think you’ll find that the catalog reproductions are far preferable to many of the original prints on view! A strange reversal of the ordinary case.
It’s an interesting point — that the best selection of prints to present to a “scholarly” audience may be different from those best to present to a “popular” audience, and that a curator might choose to serve the former audience at the expense of the latter.
I’m a bit skeptical of dividing the photography-viewing public into those two camps; personally, when I think of a “popular” audience, I don’t see a group of people who would care to go see a Bresson show in the first place. The people I see at exhibits of this kind are usually art people, students, photography enthusiasts, and the semi-reluctant boyfriends or girlfriends of those art people, students, and photography enthusiasts.
And I would assume that all of those people, like me, have a substantial lay interest in the “scholarly” stuff — such as the history of the medium, manifest in awesome old stuff like work prints.
However, the value of that type of material for a “lay scholar” viewer like myself is entirely dependent on the extent to which the material is given a comprehensible context. If a print is a work print, the viewer should understand (a) that it is a work print, (b) what a work print is, (c) how a work print was used, and (d) what other kinds of prints of the same negative exist or may have existed.
Many of us who go to see such photographs understand (a) and (b) in general, and so it is fair for a curator to omit information about those points if they aren’t pursuing a more “popular” audience, but (c) and (d) are not constants throughout the history of the medium, and should be elaborated for any photographer whose work is being presented to even a relatively-informed public. Failure to address that kind of question either indicates that the curator is not sufficiently medium-conscious, or is lazy.
As Johnston says in his footnote:
I don’t know this for sure, but, although there is a wide range of prints in the show that probably originated from many different sources, I’d bet there are very few Voja Mitrovic prints in this particular show: that is, they’re not the prints M. Cartier-Bresson would have had made when a collector would wish to buy one from him or from one of his galleries.
This is exactly the sort of question that an exhibition should explicitly address in its captioning. Unfortunately, many don’t. Of course, usually this runs in the opposite direction to what Johnston is describing — a photograph that had its canonical form as a low-res book reproduction is presented to a contemporary viewer as a lovingly made, gigantic, technically perfect silver gelatin print. We discussed a case of that sort recently.
I think my favorite approach to this problem might be the big Frank show a while back, which presented multiple editions of The Americans alongside contact sheets, work prints, and beautiful gigantic prints. Not quite enough work was done to make clear to the viewer the relationship between those huge prints and the cultural significance of the book, but it was close, and even just having multiple versions of almost all the photographs is a huge boon to the viewer.
In any case, I don’t want to leap to conclusions about the nature of the Bresson show in particular. I believe it’ll be headed my way in a few months, and when I see it, I’ll provide a follow-up post.