Photography: Klein, Cartier-Bresson and the Rest

by John Harvey

London seems suddenly awash with photography shows and there’s no better way of sampling them than in the company of someone who actually knows something about photography. So I was lucky yesterday to spend time at Tate Modern and Somerset House in the company of my friend, Robbie Polley, Architectural Illustrator and Photographer. Capital P.

The first thing to say about the William Klein/Daido Moriyama exhibition at Tate Modern is that the work is brilliantly displayed, from the collections of magazine and book pages under glass to the stunning black and white montages that dominate the walls. I’ve long been an admirer of Klein’s New York photography – busy, crowded, blurry – reminiscent of American new wave films like Cassavetes’ Shadows with its jazzy feel and left-of-focus fifties look. The overall impression is of something vibrant, real, caught on the hoof. Stay with the photos a little longer and their artistry becomes clearer – the framing, the use of figures to provide depth of field, those elements of the composition that seem to slide forward slowly into vision the more time you spend. There’s an interesting little video in which Klein talks about – and demonstrates – how, and why, he makes the choices from his contact sheets that he does: which of the half-dozen or more less similar shots is the one.

It’s a skill that comes, clearly, with practice and one with which Moriyama, a retrospective of whose work is twinned with Klein’s here, seems less concerned. “My approach is very simple,” he says, “there is no artistry. I just shoot freely. For me, photography is not about an attempt to create a two-dimensional work of art, but by taking photo after photo, I come closer to truth and reality at the very intersection of the fragmentary nature of the world and my own personal sense of time.”

Closer to the truth, I’m not sure. The images, as they are assembled, often in harsh juxtaposition, are engaging but rarely more – yes, there’s a world here, fragmentary as he says, jumping, whirling around – what his take on it largely fails to do is to stop that world, stop us in our tracks, make us look for longer and in more depth at that split second the camera has captured and – something Moriyama, as a photographer, has largely chosen to deny himself – the conscious artistry of the maker’s eye.

Conscious artistry of an altogether calmer, less obtrusive kind is the key to the work of Cartier-Bresson, the best of whose work seems to effortlessly combine a meticulous use of the devices of photography – framing, positioning, texture, light and shade – with an unobtrusive and apparently ‘innocent’ eye that more often than not leaves the subject unaware. The current show at Somerset House, Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, is built around the CB’s assertion, made back in the 50s, that where the art of photography is concerned, colour photography just doesn’t cut it. It’s an argument that’s been disproved a million times since then, but as an excuse to bring together as rewarding a collection as this, that scarcely matters.

Cartier-Bresson’s own photographs displayed here are, for the most part – and less usually – taken in America, and have not been shown in this country before, other than in reproduction. Apparently, Bresson was of the opinion that Walker Evans was the greatest of American photographers, so it’s hardly surprising that most of his own pictures look a lot like Walker Evans. No matter. There are 75 works in colour in the various rooms, representing the work of 14 different photographers, of whom the most outstanding, to me, were Ernst Haas and Helen Levitt, both of whom I knew, together with Saul Leiter, Trent Parke, and – I think Robbie’s favourite – Alex Webb, all three of whom were a great surprise.

Ernest Haas

Helen Levitt

A most enjoyable and worthwhile day, not least for the lunch of eggs, chorizo and sourdough bread from the branch of Fernandez and Wells, overlooking the courtyard in Somerset House.