8 NOVEMBER 2012 - 27 JANUARY 2013
It was taken for granted, for most of Cartier-Bresson’s career span, that photographing in an artful manner meant capturing one’s subject in black and white; colour was something reserved for commerce. As long as the illustrated magazines were restricted to black and white reproduction, this posed no problem for photographers who adored the medium.
14 MARCH - 28 APRIL 2013
‘Landmark’ is a wide-ranging exhibition of important photographs by a roster of international artists working with landscape and environmental themes. It brings together for the first time in a major exhibition, relevant works by the most important 21st Century photographers working in a genre that has always occupied a central place in photography, but is today more relevant than ever.
Today the environment is at the heart of everyone’s concerns: rising sea levels, desertification, deforestation, the melting Poles and retreating glaciers, extinction of species on land and in sea, pollution of myriad forms, and many other ills trouble our minds on a daily basis.
Photographers are our eyes and ears, bringing the facts of what is happening to Planet Earth to our attention in insightful and eloquent ways. From straightforward, even brutal documents, through pithy and ironic commentaries, to poetic and enigmatic visions, many of the best photographers working today travel the world (or simply stay at home) looking around them at the ‘marks’ humans have made and are making on the land. They trek deep into the Arctic with cumbersome 19th-century plate cameras or send drones with 21st Century electronic eyes into the skies over China and Afghanistan.
A few photographers show us the last vestiges of a pristine nature, reminding us of what we are trampling on thoughtlessly in our rush for material progress; others show us the sullied Earth, scarred and overburdened; still others focus on the often bizarre attempts to create ‘new’ Edens - like island “paradises”, or “the World’s Biggest Indoor Tropical Forest” (claimed by Berlin), or Alpine ski slopes under a dome in the middle of the Arabian desert (proudly advertised by Dubai). And still other photographers show us nature fighting back - reclaiming towns and fields abandoned by an overreaching human population. The field of photography is being tilled with ingenuity and purpose!
It can even be argued that ‘landscape/environment’ is the most important and vital genre in contemporary photography, and it is no coincidence that the most notable names in the field today are associated with it: Mitch Epstein, Nadav Kander, Edward Burtynsky, Robert Adams, Simon Norfolk, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lee Friedlander, Simon Roberts, Toshio Shibata, and Robert Polidori number among the masters featured in the show. To this group are added brilliant emerging talents: Pieter Hugo, Raphael Dallaporta, Michael Najjar, Olaf Otto Becker, Penelope Umbrico, Harry Cory Wright and a number of younger practitioners who have already left their own indelible ‘marks’ on landscape photography.
The exhibition is curated by William A. Ewing, the noted photographic curator and historian. As the author of many books and the curator of hundreds of exhibitions in Europe and the Americas over the past forty years, Mr Ewing brings a wide-ranging knowledge of the field and an acute eye to bear on this important and timely subject.
However, when improvements in colour reproduction in the post-war period led to increasing demands for colour photography, those same photographers found it hard to resist the pressure. Like many other photographers of his time, Cartier-Bresson was sceptical about colour’s art potential; he believed substantial technical obstacles remained, both in the taking of the picture [the film was too slow and usually required needed artificial light, so one could say goodbye to spontaneity, for example] and its reproduction [plate-making was laborious and registration was a nightmare].
Even more seriously, Cartier-Bresson had deep misgivings about colour film as an expressive medium. He could not resist a damning conclusion: “A colour photograph reproduced in a magazine or semi-luxury edition sometimes gives the impression of an anatomical dissection which has been badly bungled.” And he knew this from first-hand experience, as he had often given in to that pressure, then be forced to confront the feeble results splashed across double-page spreads in the magazines. MoMA curator Peter Galassi accurately gauges the photographer’s attitude to colour as “a marginal matter – an irritant or at best a passing temptation, but not a structural part of his work.”
Nevertheless, despite his personal scepticism, he admitted that colour photography was in its infancy, and justified further experimentation. It required “a new attitude of mind, an approach different than that which is appropriate for black and white… We must continue to try to feel our way.”
Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour features the work of a select number of photographers whose commitment to expression in colour was (or is) wholehearted, sophisticated, and measures up to Cartier-Bresson’s requirement that content and form were in perfect balance. Some were his contemporaries, even, like Ernst Haas, friends; others, like Fred Herzog in Vancouver, knew Cartier-Bresson across a vast distance, essentially through his seminal books. Others were junior colleagues, like Harry Gruyaert, who found themselves debating colour ferociously with the master. And still others, like Andy Freeberg or Carolyn Drake, never knew the man first hand, but feel the influence of his example. However, the exhibition can only deal with the tip of the iceberg. Colour photographers indebted in one way or another to Henri Cartier-Bresson are legion. Nonetheless, few colour photographers could actually live up to the rigour he demanded, which he summarized as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”