Henri Cartier-Bresson Documentary: Pen, Brush and Camera

Informative documentary on Henri Cartier-Bresson. It revolves around an exhibition put together by four leading London galleries on the occasion of Cartier-Bresson’s 90th birthday in 1998 (he passed away six years later in 2004).

Things I didn’t know about Cartier-Bresson:

  • He spoke English well and with little accent. I’d never heard him speak before and somehow I thought he would have a broad, stereotypical French accent, but he didn’t.
  • Although I knew that he had started as a painter, moved to photography, and then returned to drawing towards the end of his life I’d never seen examples of his non-photographic work until now. Not at all bad.
  • I hadn’t realized that he had studied the moving image and had worked on and even appeared in some movies in his native France (while working with Jean Renoir).

And some quotations:

  • “Photography is nothing more than instant drawing for me”
  • “It’s mere luck, photography, just luck” (Talking about ‘Behind the Gare Lazare’).
  • “Some of the boys are alive, some are dead, and some people are dead while they’re alive also” (talking about the Magnum photo archive).
  • “The thing that is wonderful is to watch him work and I’ve walked with him on the streets and seen him. He moves with great speed. He sees instantaneously and he does a sort of little ballet, like a little dance. He rises on his toes, the camera goes to the eye, the click comes and you don’t even know you’ve been photographed and he’s off to the next.” Eve Arnold (talking about Cartier-Bressons shooting style).
  • “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
  • “Using a camera is for me keeping a diary, a visual diary just like some writers keep a journal. So in that sense I’m a journalist”
  • “Everything is just mere chance and the joy with the camera is to take that chance, to be available”.

At the very end of the documentary the interviewer says: “What do you say to people who call you the greatest photographer of the 20th century?” There’s a pause and then Cartier-Bresson leans in closely to the interviewer and with a smile and a twinkle in his eye whispers “Bullshit”.

I also came across this two part interview in the New York Times (you may have to be a subscriber to the NYT to get access however):

A Year in Photography: Magnum Archive

I recently picked a copy of this book. Amazon.com describes it as follows:

Now available again in a stunning new format, this generously illustrated book for lovers of photography includes 365 images from the greatest photojournalists of today and yesterday. Founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos is the iconic international photographic cooperative whose members have captured the major historical events of their times, as well as private and intimate moments. A year’s worth of these images is offered in this visually stunning book that features full page reproductions organized to reflect what CartierBresson himself declared a “community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Nearly 70 photographers are represented with five to six images each, and the current Magnum members have selected the photographs that they consider to best represent their own output. Running more than 700 pages, this book includes images that make history both individual and universal.

It’s a small (about 7 inches by 7 inches), thick book so of course the images inside are also quite small. There’s little in the way of explanatory text. No introductory essay. No text other than brief captions (usually just the name of the photographer and the place/date where the photograph was taken) accompanying the photographs. Just a short (four paragraphs) blurb from Jonas Bendiksen, President of Magnum Photos (2010) and an even shorter (two paragraphs) piece from Marie-Christine Biebuyck, Magnum Photos.

There were a few images that I was familiar with, but the vast majority I’d not seen before. I find it a great book to keep handy so that I can pick it up from to time just to browse through the beautiful photographs.

John Hedgecoe’s Complete Guide to Photography

I was going through some boxes when I came across this book. I loved the sub-title: “A step-by-step course from the world’s best-selling photographer”. ‘Best-Selling’ in terms of what I wondered. Presumably in terms of photography ‘how to’ books.

I’m not trying to demean this book. Quite the contrary. I remember loving it at the time. It was first published in 1990 and consists of three main sections.

The first covers basics: How the camera works; Choosing a camera; Camera automation; Choosing and using lenses; Choosing the Aperture; Choosing the Shutter Speed; Colour Film; Black and White Film; Camera Flash; Colour through the day.

The third and final section is called “Broadening your Scope” and covers such topics as Choosing the Right Equipment; Using Camera Filters; The Home Studio; The Home Darkroom; Photographic Montage; Mounting and Presentation; and Fault Finding.

There’s also a glossary, but the ‘meat’ of the book is contained in the second section entitled ‘The Projects’ where the author presents a series of 71 projects covering such areas as The Essential Elements (e.g. shape, form, texture, pattern, colour, tone, perspective etc.); People; Places; Still Life; The Natural World; and Action. It was these projects that interested me most when I bought the book. I tend to be all over the place and these projects gave some much needed structure. Another thing I liked was that each project was lavishly illustrated with related photographs.

The funny thing is that I remember loaning this book to a neighbor that I later lost touch with. It always annoyed me that he had not returned it and from time to time I’d “curse” him under my breath. It seems it was wrong though. Since I have the book I guess he must have returned it. My apologies Artie wherever you are.

A photographically interesting couple of hours in Pleasantville, NY

A few days before Christmas my wife was going to lunch with a friend in Pleasantville, NY. I needed to get out of the house so I decided to go along with her. I knew that there was a small bookstore in Pleasantville and I thought that I would “check it out” and then grab a bite to eat.

I set off walking in the direction of the bookstore when I spotted this photo store: Photoworks. I’d noticed it before, but it always seemed to be closed when I went by. Assuming that it was largely devoted to photofinishing, scanning etc. I was about to walk by when, looking through the window, I noticed a glass case inside – full of vintage cameras. I went in and asked the women if the cameras were for sale or just for display. She called her husband, George who emerged from the back somewhere and we had a long conversation about vintage cameras. Inside the case were two Nikon Fs (see above). I’d wanted one of these for a while, the price was right and the prospect of actually having a human being I could bring the camera back to in case of problems was appealing. I told him I would consult with my wife and return later.

I continued on to the bookstore: The Village Bookstore, a very pleasant establishment, small but well stocked and with a nice atmosphere. Among the shelves I came across (and purchased) this recently published biography of Robert Frank: American Witness. The Art and Life of Robert Frank.

Time to start looking for somewhere to eat. Then I spotted this building. On the front it said “The Gordon Parks Foundation“, so I went inside to take a look. I didn’t even realize that such an institution existed in Pleasantville. Inside they had a small selection of books by/on Gordon Parks but the bulk of the space was taken up by an exhibition: Element: Gordon Parks and Kendric Lamar. According to the Foundation’s website:

The Gordon Parks Foundation announced the opening of ELEMENT – a new exhibition on view at the Foundation’s exhibition space from December 1—February 10 showcasing Gordon Parks photographs that inspired rapper Kendrick Lamar’s music video ELEMENT from his album, DAMN. Lamar, known for using powerful images in his music videos, directly references and revives a number of Parks’ images that explore the lives of Black Americans, including the 1963 photo Boy With Junebug, Untitled, the 1956 photo from Parks’ “Segregation Stories” series, Ethel Sharrieff, a 1963 photo from his “The White Man’s Day Is Almost Over” photo essay about Black Muslims, as well as photos form Parks’ 1948 “Harlem Gang Leader” series.

“Gordon Parks’ work is continuing to have a great impact on young people – and particularly on artists like Kendrick who, use the power of imagery to examine issues related to social justice and race in our country,” said Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director of The Gordon Parks Foundation. “With ELEMENT the music video, Kendrick has helped to call attention to one of the most important artists of our time.”

Long-time friend and supporter of The Gordon Parks Foundation, Kasseem Dean (aka, Swizz Beatz) noted, “I’m so inspired that my friend Kendrick Lamar chose the iconic imagery of the legendary Gordon Parks in his video for ELEMENT. It’s a prime example of how contemporary change makers – artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers – can borrow from the greats of the past who were also working towards social change.”

At the foundation of ELEMENT. are Parks’ photo essays exploring issues related to poverty and social justice which established him as one of the most significant story tellers of American society. “Harlem Gang Leader,” the photo essay published in LIFE magazine, is credited with introducing Parks to America. The photos explored the world of Leonard “Red” Jackson, the leader of a gang in Harlem. Soon after, Parks was offered a position as staff photographer for the magazine, making him the first, and for a long time the only, African American photographer at the magazine. Also published in LIFE, Parks documented the daily life of an extended African American family living under Jim Crow segregation in the rural South entitled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.”

The Guardian has also published an interesting article on this exhibition: The story behind Kendrick Lamar’s Gordon Parks exhibition

After that I decided that I didn’t have enough time to eat before meeting my wife so I adjourned to a nearby bar
Foley’s Club Lounge for a couple of beers.

According to Mount Pleasant by George Waterbury, Claudine Waterbury, Bert Ruiz:

Harry Foley was a Pleasantville High School Basketball legend. He was also a Niagara University Hall of Fame and Westchester County Hall of Fame athlete. He bought Gorman’s Club Lounge on Bedford Road in 1950 and maintained the establishment until the 1970s. Foley’s Club Lounge has been a traditional watering hole for generations of Pace University students for nearly a half century.

When my wife finished her lunch we met up and I asked her if she’d like to buy me a Christmas present. She said yes so it was off back to the photo store to pick up the Nikon F with Photomic Ftn finder.

All in all a photographically speaking an interesting day, if rather unexpected.

Revisiting Ansel Adams

Jeffrey Pine.  Source: Ansel Adams Galleries

Jeffrey Pine, Sentinel Dome. Source: Ansel Adams Galleries

I got the idea for this post from a video that I came across on the internet. I was well worth seeing so I thought I would post a link to it. However, as I started to do so it occurred to me that I might have posted about this video before. I checked and indeed I had (see Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film 2002).

So instead this post revisits my love/hate relationship with Ansel Adams. Actually ‘hate’ is the wrong word. Even when I’m ‘down’ on Adams I don’t ‘hate’ his work. It’s just that once upon a time I thought he was THE great photographer. This was in the late 1970s-early 1980s. My wife had recently bought me my first serious camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic 7sII) and I was new to photography. At that time Adams was (and continues to be) immensely poplar. A print of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” sold at auction in 1981, for a then record price for a photograph – $71,500 (doesn’t seem much now when Rhein II by Andreas Gursky is fetching in excess of $4 million!). This was the kind of photographer I wanted to be. I wanted to make (Adams himself preferred the verb to ‘make’ a photograph rather than to ‘take’ one) landscape photographs like these.

Over the years I learned more about photography and famous photographers and discovered that even though to this day I continue to photograph landscapes, my passion for landscape photography pales in comparison to Adam’s. Other genres started to interest me. Other photographers began to interest me and I started to turn away from Ansel Adams. I began to think of him as more of a superb technician than a great creative photographer.

Then in the late 1990s-late 2000s I almost entirely lost interest in photography, ‘making’ pictures only when required to document travel and family events. Starting around 2010 my interest was re-kindled and since then I’ve been taking pictures, collecting cameras and reading about famous photographers like there’s no tomorrow.

So where do I stand on Adams now. My collection of photography books includes Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (a great book). I’d also read Looking at Ansel Adams: The Photographs and the Man and I have a copy of Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs. In preparation for this post I read his autobiography: Ansel Adams: An Autobiography.

I also did quick and totally unscientific test. I looked at all of the photographs in “Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs” one evening. The next day I repeated this exercise noting down those that if felt, from a quick perusal, had moved me. Only 24 had.

Of course there’s much more to Ansel Adams than just his photographs. He was an accomplished pianist (headed for a career as a concert pianist before photography became his passion). Judging from his autobiography he was no slouch at writing either. He was a tireless advocate for the environment, a founder member of the West Coast circle of photographers Group f64 that also included (among others) Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, a founder of ‘Aperture‘ magazine. He was also an educator and a prolific writer. Adams, along with Alfred Stieglitz, probably had the most impact on the evolution of photography in the United States.

His best photographs are superb! However, I feel that the totality of his work falls behind other great American photographers like Paul Strand and Edward Weston. Neither of these photographers had the same overall impact on photography as a whole though.

Regrettably the tree in the picture above has now gone. According to the Ansel Adams Gallery:

Though Adams’ photograph made the Jeffrey Pine famous, it was long an icon for photographers visiting Yosemite ; Carleton Watkins photographed it in 1867. the easy hike to reach Sentinel Dome from the Glacier Point road, the tree became a popular destination; over the years, thousands of visitors carved their initials into it. Despite the efforts of park rangers who carried buckets of water to it, the tree perished in the drought of 1976-77 and fell in August 2003.