Too much camera club circa 1958

Award-winning 'Independent' photographer Brian Harris on why he's not joining the worshippers of Cartier-Bresson

Brian Harris
Sunday 08 February 1998 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


IN THE history of photography the name Henri Cartier-Bresson looms across the 20th century like a giant telephoto lens. The so-called father of modern realism, the revered and reclusive Frenchman celebrates his 90th birthday this year with galleries and picture editors falling over themselves to pay tribute to his work. Certainly much of it is to be admired, and his influence on succeeding generations of photojournalists is undeniable. But are Cartier-Bresson's pictures really the works of art that so many claim them to be? I think not - and part of the problem I have with them is the ridiculous and quite unwarranted mystique that has built up around anything on which the sacred Cartier-Bresson shutter has snapped.

Last week I attended the press opening of the first of no fewer than four Cartier-Bresson exhibitions that will be taking place in Britain alone in 1998. Naturally I had my camera with me for my visit to "Henri Cartier-Bresson: Europeans" at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank. Using it was another matter. "You can't do that," a Hayward press officer told me. "You can't just take photographs of what you want, you know."

The problem was that of the 180 images in the exhibition, only six are allowed to be reprinted elsewhere. I replied that if I wanted to take a picture of the exhibition I would do exactly that - with no restrictions, nothing pre-planned; in fact, just the way the great Henri himself worked. I was then threatened with being sued by Magnum - Cartier-Bresson's agency - and thrown out by security if I raised my camera and included the wrong pictures!

Funny. I thought the whole point of Magnum - set up 51 years ago by, among others, Henri Cartier-Bresson - was to give the individual photographer complete freedom.

Let's keep a sense of proportion here. The images on the walls are photographs for goodness sake, not religious icons. Are we supposed to genuflect in front of them? That wouldn't be appropriate even if these photographs were as good as some people say they are. In fact, there is plenty to criticise. Sure, Henri Cartier-Bresson has taken some very fine photographs in his time. Some, indeed, you can call definitive - "The Accusation at Dessau, Germany, 1945", for example, which shows women inmates turning on a camp guard and brilliantly captures the raw emotions involved. Others are just pretentious.

"Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation," Cartier- Bresson says. But the evidence on the Hayward's walls is contradictory. The liking for huge wide spaces with small figures, shadows and silhouettes is very camera club circa 1958. It was a cliche then and it's a cliche now. Plenty of photographers compose in this way - many of my own pictures over the years could be accused of being "a bit camera club".

The effect, though, is to make photographs seem very detached. A coldness, a lack of compassion, pervades Cartier-Bresson's pictures. It's as if these hunted-looking people are only there to fit the requirements of the "golden section", the geometric principle that has governed picture- composition since the Renaissance. It certainly doesn't help the viewer to understand the people or the way they lived. It seems to me to be a false way of looking at the world. Some post-Cartier- Bresson photographers have challenged these precepts: photojournalism has found room for the sort of picture in which subjects are walking out of shot, for example, and the result is a level of authenticity not apparent in the "master".

Maybe Cartier-Bresson has allowed his trainee artist's eye to take over feeling. Maybe his middle-class upbringing - he was born into a comfortably off Normandy family - prevents him from empathising with others. Photography, we should not forget, really is the people's art. It should be seen as something attainable, not an exercise in iconography.

The most alarming example of the way Cartier-Bresson's work has come to seem untouchable in its purity is a series of photographs he took in Ireland when he loaded his camera incorrectly and the sprocket holes showed up on the edge of the misaligned film. Are they important? Are they relevant? Of course not. But there they are, faithfully preservedin the finished print.

At the Hayward matters are not helped by the inclusion of what I can only call the Thoughts of Chairman Henri - brief statements of his artistic intent dotted around the walls in absurdly fancy script. These left me feeling a bit sad for Cartier-Bresson: there was something almost Orwellian about the exercise. And as an exhibition space, the cold and bunker-like Hayward only compounds the problem with Cartier-Bresson's pictures. Compare the exhibition with the power of the Francis Bacon exhibition showing in another part of the gallery, or the exhibition of punk graphic art which is on across the way at the Royal Festival Hall. The open, inviting space given over to this show, helped by natural light, would have been a more appropriate venue for an exhibition of photographs. But then there is a much better home still for Cartier-Bresson's photographs, and it's the one for which they were originally intended: books, newspapers and magazines. A pedestal is never a comfortable place to be.

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