Thursday, 6 December 2012

A question of colour

Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour is a gem of an exhibition currently running at Somerset House in London. The starting point is a number of black and white photographs by Henri Cartier Bresson not previously seen in the UK. These are juxtaposed with colour photographs by 15 different international photographers working from the 1950s up to the present day.  The participating photographers all share a certain working method with Cartier Bresson: their work is spontaneous rather than planned or staged, and mostly shot on the street.

Cartier Bresson is of course known for his black and white work and in fact was quite dismissive of colour photography on technical and aesthetic grounds, claiming that colour was for paintings. The curator, William Ewing has designed the exhibition as both a response and a challenge to these opinions and shows how the use of colour was adopted by many photographers influenced by Cartier Bresson's oeuvre to express a sophisticated and many-layered view of the world. Throughout the rooms in the show, works are grouped around a single black and white Cartier Bresson image, and set up an inspiring interplay of themes and motifs, places and people, light and colour.

Some of the photographers are well-known names - Joel Meyerowitz, Helen Levitt, Harry Gruyaert and include some of my absolute favourites - Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Boris Savelev.  Some names are new to me - Carolyn Drake, Melanie Einzig, Karl Baden, Robert Walker.  Each has their own distinct ways of using colour, working and responding to life on the street according to their personal vision and preferences. What unites them is the stream of joyful colour which threads it way through the exhibition, whether subtle and restrained, rich and jewel-like, naturalistic or highly saturated, eliciting a myriad of responses in the viewer.

The colour image is so ubiquitous nowadays that it is difficult for us to imagine what it was like in the 1950s when serious photography was always in black and white - colour photography was in its infancy and viewed as the domain of the amateur or commercial photographer. Cartier Bresson considered colour photography to be inferior to black and white but in fact, as the demand for colour photographs began to grow, he started using it for it some magazine reportage.  There are examples in the exhibition and it has to be said that his colour work is nowhere near as successful as his black and white.  Some photographers have the fortunate ability to switch from one medium to the other, but Cartier Bresson seems to have perfected his black and white eye to such an extent that he was unable to translate his vision into colour.

Highlights for me in the show are Boris Savelev's painterly, muted images reproduced on a large-scale and mounted on gesso-coated aluminium, which give them a depth and presence which is unique; Saul Leiter's luminous studies of life reflected and framed in the windows and doorways of New York; Carolyn Drake's beautiful use of complementary colours to catch fleeting moments.  Some examples below....

 Karl Baden

 Fred Herzog

Alex Webb

 Harry Gruyaert

 Helen Levitt

 Joel Meyerowitz

 Boris Savelev

 Ernst Haas

 Carolyn Drake

Saul Leiter

There is a very interesting review of the show by Financial Times photography critic Francis Hodgson on his blog. He writes about the exhibition in terms of musical harmonies and dissonance, discussing the ways in which colour can affect the mood and response of the viewer - an excellent and thought-provoking read. Also some extra insight into Cartier-Bresson's attitude to colour in this interview with Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert. This is an exhibition which will definitely demand a further visit - happily it is free so I plan to return. It runs until 27th January.  Details here


  1. Interesting review--you've motivated me to go this week. The Hodgson article was a good find, too: reminded me of Pater's idea that "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."

  2. It's well worth a visit. Francis Hodgson has always got an interesting slant on whatever topic he is reviewing. I fear my education is sadly lacking as I'm not familiar with Pater! Are you saying that music is the highest form of art?

  3. Annette Dall'Oglio8 December 2012 at 09:49

    A beautiful selection of photographs. Must try to fit the exhibition into the January diary.

  4. Re Pater: I think what he meant is not that music is the highest form of art, but that music is the most abstract of all forms (or was at the time he was writing: he died in 1894, before abstraction had really hit painting in a big way.) So music could be discussed purely in reference to its intrinsics, and not be saddled with extrinsic baggage such as "meaning." He was also very interested in subjective responses to art, and a lot of his writing is about the process of response to art.

    To push musical analogies a bit further, Saul Leiter seems like Debussy, and Meyrowitz like Bach.