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August 19 2012

Martine Franck obituary

Photographer whose work ranged from portraits of the famous to pictures of the poor

Martine Franck, who has died aged 74, was a photographer of great contrasts. She started out by taking pictures in Asia, a continent she revisited for weeks at a time, but she also devoted herself to documenting daily life close to her homes in Paris and the Luberon, Provence. Her work is characterised by a fascination with the little intimacies and interactions in the lives of anonymous poor, marginalised and elderly people, yet she also assembled a matchless portfolio of portraits of famous authors and artists, including Seamus Heaney, Marc Chagall and Diego Giacometti.

Franck never adhered to the opinion professed by her fellow Magnum agency photographer Eve Arnold that all photographers are obliged to be intrusive. Ever modest, she said: "I think I was shy as a young woman and realised that photography was an ideal way of expressing myself, of telling people what was going on without having to talk." In 1970, she married the celebrated French photographer and co-founder of the Magnum agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The couple collaborated on a series of portraits of the artist Balthus, as retiring by temperament as Franck herself.

She was born to a Belgian banker, Louis Franck, and his British wife, Evelyn, in Antwerp. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, her father, who made his career in London, joined the British army. The rest of the family was evacuated to the US and spent the war on Long Island and in Arizona. She was educated in Europe, and studied history of art at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris.

Writing her thesis (on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the influence of cubism on sculpture) convinced Franck that she did not wish to be an academic or a curator, but a photographer. Her father had moved in artistic circles and one of her first portraits was of the sculptor Etienne Martin emerging from a cave smeared with clay. In 1963, she went to China, taking her cousin's Leica camera with her, and discovered the joys of documenting other cultures. Returning home via Hong Kong, Cambodia, India, Afghanistan and Turkey, she paused to visit the theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine and bought her first camera in Japan. She kept to a Leica, and predominantly used black-and-white film, throughout her career.

Returning to France, she worked as a photographic assistant at Time-Life while developing her own technique. Her early mentors were Eliot Elisofon and Gjon Mili, yet she also cited dramatically different female photographers as influences: Julia Margaret Cameron, for her portraits, and Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Lange's social conscience was reflected in Franck's project on old people's homes for the Petits Frères des Pauvres association. Bourke-White's love for play of light and geometric shapes is embedded in arguably Franck's single most perfect image, that of the bathers at the poolside at Le Brusc (Provence), taken in 1976. She described her experience of capturing it: "I remember running to get the image while changing the film, quickly closing down the lens as the sunlight was so intense. That's what makes photography so exciting." A moment later the positions of all five figures and their shadows on the white tiles would have irrevocably altered. The image has stood the test of time and was used as the cover shot for her book in the series I Grandi Fotografi in 2003.

Franck's work was used in Life, Fortune and Vogue, for which she shot portraits of women in public life, including her fellow photographer Sarah Moon and Mnouchkine, who made Franck the official photographer to her Théâtre du Soleil. Franck's fascination with masks and disguises found an outlet in Mnouchkine's ambitious deployment of kathakali, kabuki and commedia dell'arte. Their collaboration led to Franck experimenting with colour photography, which she used to capture theatrical productions such as Robert Wilson's ethereal version of Fables de la Fontaine at the Comédie Française in 2004. Franck's love of the theatrical could transform her quiet unobtrusiveness.

In 1966, Franck met Cartier-Bresson, who epitomised Magnum's tradition of humanitarian photography. Franck was adamant that she would neither bask in his reflection nor disappear in his shadow and she joined the Vu agency in 1970. Her first solo exhibition was planned for the ICA in London that year; when she saw that the invitations were embossed with the information that her husband would be present at the launch, she cancelled the show.

With Vu's demise, Franck co-founded the Viva agency in 1972. It also collapsed and it was not until 1980 that Franck joined Magnum, becoming a full member in 1983. She was one of the few women to be accepted into the agency and served as vice-president from 1998 to 2000. Eschewing the war/human tragedy reportage that characterised Magnum's reputation, Franck continued her projects on marginal or isolated lives. When I first met her, in the 1990s, she had just completed her book on Tory Island, a "small rock" off the northern Irish coast with a population of around 130 Gaelic-speakers, where she lived in order to document their way of life.

Always a feminist, Franck was not above picking a grandiose book title – such as Des Femmes et la Création. It is typical that one of her final projects involved three weeks spent visiting small villages in Gujerat, western India, documenting young girls embroidering their own dowries.

As well as their homage to Balthus, Franck and Cartier-Bresson undertook a joint project in the Soviet Union. Franck also created a small book of portraits of her husband. Among the most memorable of this similarly shy and elusive character is that taken from behind, showing the back of his head. His reflection in the square mirror before him is repeated in the self-portrait he is sketching: a reflection on a reflection. Franck never used him as mentor or protector but warmly concluded: "Henri was both critical and inspirational as well as warmly supportive of me as a photographer". They had one daughter, Melanie, another reason for Franck to operate close to home when possible.

Franck's brother, the photographic curator and collector Eric Franck, affirms: "Henri was always very generous in encouraging her work, something she respected greatly." Franck's sister-in-law, Louise Baring, adds: "What was so extraordinary about Martine was that with subtlety and grace she could both be a great photographer herself and at the same time honour her husband's tradition."

She worked hard to launch the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in 2002. In 2005, she was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. After her diagnosis with bone marrow cancer in 2010, she continued showing her work, and had exhibitions earlier this year at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and at the Claude Bernard Gallery in Paris.

She is survived by Melanie, three grandchildren and her brother, Eric.

• Martine Franck, photographer, born 3 April 1928; died 16 August 2012


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July 28 2012

Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930-80 – review

Tate Britain, London

Another London is a show of black-and-white photographs of the host city that can only have been conceived with Olympic visitors in mind. This is a tourist guide to London at its most familiar and nostalgic. It is Big Ben and the Tower of London, bobbies and red buses, pearly kings, cockney sparrows, roll out the barrel and change the guard, all viewed through a haze of smog so unvarying that it makes even the work of such disparate artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt look speciously similar.

The photographs all come from the collection of Cartier-Bresson's brother-in-law, Eric Franck, who has given more than a thousand pictures to Tate, doubling its holdings. Some of these are classics, including Irving Penn's turbaned cleaning ladies with their battered buckets and their shining resolve, and Lartigue's portrait of his wife, Bibi, walking towards the camera as the street shears away behind her looking remarkably like 19th-century Paris.

Other images are by less well-known names, such as the Viennese photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who clambered up the dome of St Paul's to photograph the bombed-out streets, or Leonard Freed who memorialised the Hassidic communities of north London in the 70s. But all the works are by international photographers, looking in from the outside, which may be why so many of these scenes turn out to be proverbial: tea at a Lyons Corner House, City gents in bowler hats, street urchins playing in the East End terraces and that most unchanging of events, the changing of the guard.

Sometimes, the image has a distinctive sensibility, especially among the photographers of central and eastern Europe with their dramatic tonal contrasts and their fragmented compositions. Suschitzky took a bewildering photograph of figures on a merry-go-round hurtling into white space that fills one with excitable dread.

But one senses that some of these photographers had arrived in search of the Blitz spirit, the class system and the stiff upper lip and couldn't resist the sight of a cockle-seller or a schoolboy in a top hat. They photographed the general more than the particular: the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the Norland nannies forging across Hyde Park with their Silver Cross prams, the working-class orators of Speakers' Corner, preferably with a British bulldog in sight.

Black-and-white photography, of course, has the look of documentary truth; the historic record. It is apt to depict the present as if it were already the past. But even so, there are startling anachronisms here. Victorian Londoners as late as the 1920s and Eliza Doolittle, as it seems, still selling flowers in her long black clothes in the 1930s.

For me, the most remarkable photograph in this show is by Robert Frank: a sharp perspective of a London terrace in dank gloom, a motionless street cleaner framed in the window of a waiting hearse. A child darts past, her little body captured in midair, as if running away from death, or perhaps from this dark and narrow life.

It is never a sunny day in these photographs. Nor does London look like the immense and scattered metropolis it is. This is partly to do with the fact that some of these photographers were on assignment photographing the coronation of George VI, or VE Day, or the wedding of Princess Anne. Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square appear over and over again.

But perhaps London was not an easy subject for foreigners during these decades: visibility was frequently poor in the fog and smog, the geography was too diffuse, maybe the society was too hard to crack. Bill Brandt stands before a Bethnal Green doorstep to take his photograph, Eve Arnold manages to get in among the drying stockings of a steamy shared bathroom. But there is scarcely an interior shot anywhere in this exhibition.

And in the end, colour takes over in a Cultural Olympiad kind of way – the colours of a mixed-race, multi-cultural, international, all-welcoming London. This is as much a cliche of 20th-century photography of the capital as the Queen Mother visiting East End housewives during the Blitz. Individual images may be strong – it could hardly be otherwise given the calibre of the artists – but in general this is a safe and conservative show. Another London it certainly isn't.


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January 10 2012

Would Cartier-Bresson have used a cameraphone?

The demise of the cheap compact camera was inevitable, and we're all street photographers now. But given the chance, would Cartier-Bresson have swapped his Leica for a smartphone?

The cheap compact camera is on its way out. Affordable, small and increasingly stylish, they've come a long way since George Eastman made photography more accessible by bringing rolls of film and the Kodak box camera to the mass market.

But if accessibility is the issue, then smartphones have made the demise of the compact inevitable. Why lug an extra gadget around when the phone in your pocket can do just as good a job? The 8MP camera featured on the iPhone 4S may not match the pixel count on a budget Nikon Coolpix, say, but its improved lens means the phone can do a mean job of producing pictures fit for online posting.

Compact cameras have not traditionally been designed to capture the highest quality images. I had a Kodak disc camera when I was a kid, and a blurry pile of holiday snaps prove it was arguably one of the worst examples of a compact ever. The quality has increased hugely since then, but the point-and-shoot, autofocus functionality of basic compact cameras is available on every smartphone. While auto-programmes for every occasion have become standard issue on compact dials over the years (eg night-time, sport, landscape, portrait), manual control isn't something you'd expect from a budget model, nor is lens quality. For that, most serious amateurs would likely upgrade to a bridge camera, digital SLR or a compact system camera anyway. Some might even start using film.

With a camera constantly to hand to capture that decisive moment, we're all Cartier-Bressons now – but would HCB have used a cameraphone himself? He famously employed a Leica because it was small and, importantly, quiet – he liked to be as unobtrusive as possible when photographing street scenes. Would the artificial mechanical sound of a cameraphone annoy him? Or perhaps we're so accustomed to people taking photographs all around us today that it just wouldn't be an issue.

He used a fast, 50mm lens, allowing him to shoot quickly in a range of lighting conditions, and he hated post-production: "Our job consists of observing reality with the help of our camera … of fixing reality in a moment, but not manipulating it, neither during the shoot nor in the darkroom later on," he said. "These types of manipulation are always noticed by anyone with a good eye." So no Hipstamatic for him, then.

But if convenience trumps quality, and "fixing reality in a moment" is the most important thing, maybe Cartier-Bresson would have taken to the smartphone (and other tools of our digital age). As it is, he hung up his camera in 1975 and lost interest in photography, preferring to draw. "I never think about photography," he said in 2003. That would be hard to do today, in a world where if it isn't photographed, it didn't happen.


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November 11 2011

The month in photography

Audio slideshow: Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Walker Evans, Terry Richardson, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus



October 29 2011

Britain's photographic revolution

The big art institutions here are finally catching up with their American counterparts, with a new photography gallery at the V&A, increased prominence at the Tate and exciting plans elsewhere. We asked four leading curators about the state of the art

The September issue of the art magazine Frieze ran a glossary of "keywords" in contemporary art and culture. Under "Photography" the compilers wrote: "The first photograph was produced in 1826. In 2009 Tate advertised the following job for the first time: Curator (Photography and International Art). Discuss." The question invited was: why had it taken so long for photography to be viewed as a serious art form in Britain? The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, appointed its first curator of photography, Beaumont Newhall, in 1940.

There are wider cultural and historical reasons why America embraced photography so enthusiastically while Britain did not. The relatively new, technologically driven medium was ideally suited to the fast-forward momentum of American life in the early-to-mid 20th century and to capturing the country's vast natural landscapes and the towering architecture of its cities. Britain's relationship with photography was less open-minded, more suspicious, more retrospective. We tended for too long to look back, acknowledging photography's masters, from Atget to Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt to Robert Frank, in celebratory exhibitions that were staged in Britain long after they had been safely canonised elsewhere.

Major London galleries such as the Whitechapel, Barbican and the Hayward have hosted monographic and group photography shows over the past four decades while both the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery have extensive collections and regularly hold exhibitions pertaining to their remit as historical institutions. But for far too long, photography in this country was on the outskirts of the art world, dogged by the accusation that it was too instant and effortless to be real art. That began to change in the early 1990s with big groundbreaking London shows such as the Barbican's William Eggleston retrospective, Ancient and Modern, but it's worth remembering that the Tate's first major photography exhibition was the group show Cruel and Tender, in 2003.

In the past decade, though, things have changed dramatically. In 2000 Wolfgang Tillmans became the first photographer to be nominated for the Turner prize, which he subsequently won. Since then, photography has become big business on the global art market. In 2007 Andreas Gursky, the master of high-end, epic, contemporary landscape photography, sold a single print, 99 Cent II Diptychon, for £1.7m at Sotheby's in London. It displaced Edward Steichen's The Pond – Moonlight, made in 1904, as the single most expensive photograph. That record has since been broken twice, first by the conceptual artist Richard Prince, whose Untitled (Cowboy) fetched just over £2m in November 2007, and then by Cindy Sherman's Untitled #96, which sold for almost £2.5m at Christie's New York in May this year.

A host of new private galleries dealing in contemporary photography has sprung up around London, including Brancolini Grimaldi and Diemar/Noble in central London and Michael Hoppen in Chelsea. Both Flowers galleries (Kingsland Road and Cork Street) regularly show photographers, as does Timothy Taylor, Riflemaker and Haunch of Venison, while Victoria Miro has recently shown work by William Eggleston and Francesca Woodman.

Two of the most critically acclaimed and well attended shows of this year have been the Whitechapel's retrospectives of Paul Graham and Thomas Struth, two photographers who have worked quietly and determinedly on their bodies of often difficult works over the past three decades.

The culture around photography – festivals, book publishing and selling, workshops, websites and prizes – has grown exponentially, making London a centre of contemporary photographic practice. Finally…

Inevitably, if belatedly, the major art institutions have responded in kind. Last week the Victoria & Albert unveiled its new Photographs Gallery, a permanent space to show highlights from its extraordinary collection, chronicling the history of photography from 1839 to the 1960s. Ironically, the exhibition harks back to a time when London embraced what was then a revolutionary new medium that threatened to make painting a thing of the past. The V&A was the first museum to collect photography and, in 1858, to exhibit photographic prints. The oldest photograph on display in the new gallery is a daguerreotype of Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square by an anonymous photographer, and many of the pioneering giants of photography, from Margaret Cameron to Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray to Irving Penn, are represented. What's more, the exhibition will be re-curated every 18 months to show off the scale of the museum's archive of original prints.

"We play to our strengths," says curator Martin Barnes, "which, in photography, is the fine print. We are not showing the history of photography, nor charting a chronological story with examples along a linear trajectory, but nevertheless the collection is deep enough that the historical reach will always be evident in the exhibition."

Over at Tate Modern, photography curator Simon Baker's remit is perhaps more tricky, not least because it's a contemporary art gallery rather than a museum. Since his appointment in 2009 he has overseen last year's big group show, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, as well as recent shows of new work by the young American photographer Taryn Simon and Britain's Simon Norfolk. Next year, William Klein and Daido Moriyamo will face off in a big show that traces their overlapping approaches and influences.

Currently, Tate Modern has three rooms devoted to Diane Arbus, and five of new documentary work by the likes of Boris Mikhailov, Mitch Epstein and Luc Delahaye. Here, contemporary practice in all its forms would seem to be the defining strand, alongside an ongoing appreciation of more recent masters.

"It is important to say that we are not trying to build a photography department that is separate," says Baker. "We try to keep the photography displays integrated with all the other media, but also keep our ideas integrated. I'm always working on a broader context, which is that we are a contemporary art gallery."

Baker's appointment, he says, was part of "a bigger strategic decision by the Tate to engage more with photography. But it's also a reflection of the fact that the old distinctions between art photography and conceptual art are increasingly hard to maintain. In the 80s, the Tate tried to make that distinction. It bought photography by artists such as Cindy Sherman or Richard Long but didn't buy art by photographers. That distinction no longer applies. It's impossible to maintain and it should never have been there in the first place."

Britain has caught up with photography at the very moment that the nature of photography, as well as curatorship, is being questioned by digital culture. "People engage with photography in every aspect of their lives," says Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers' Gallery, currently closed for renovation but open again in early 2012. "Photography has become a very natural, even compulsive thing with the coming of the mobile phone camera and relatively cheap, hi-tech digital compacts. The democratisation of photography and distribution of photos via social networks has changed everything, and we, as curators, cannot simply stand back and ignore that."

Her response is to reopen next spring with not just an expanded gallery space for contemporary photography in print form, but with what she calls The Digital Wall For All. "People still need a quiet space to look deeply at photographs and to reflect on their form and content, but there is also this tsunami of images on the internet and we, as a contemporary gallery, have a role to play in somehow making sense of that." The Digital Wall, says Rogers, "will reflect the new ways of curating, editing and re-imaging" that the internet has spawned, and "will involve the public as co-producers of some of the work".

Perhaps the most intriguing new space for photography will be the Media Space, due to open in spring 2013 behind the Science Museum in Kensington. Linked to both the Science Museum and the National Media Museum in Bradford, the Media Space has seen British-born Charlotte Cotton tempted back from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be its creative director. Having served for 12 years at the V&A and then, briefly, at the Photographers' Gallery, Cotton's new job is an intriguing one. "We are at a point where everything is up for review," she says, "including the idea of what a cultural space should be doing at this moment of what you might call exhilarating crisis."

To this end, Cotton envisages the Media Space as more "a kunsthalle than a museum" and describes it most animatedly when she lists all the things it will not be. "I don't think anyone is waiting for the history of photography according to the National Media Museum." The Media Space, she says, will have private rooms and workshop spaces as well as exhibition spaces, and will view its audience as contributors to the vision rather than passive viewers. "It will be a place to discuss the new media in creative technologies in a non-institutionalised way. And it will be about how photography fits into that discussion rather than a photography gallery per se. I'm not particularly interested in fighting the battle to legitimise photography as an artform. That battle has, to a great degree, already been won."

It took an inordinately long time for that battle to be won in Britain. How curators now make sense of the brave new digital world, this unprecedented shift in our collective way of seeing – and mediating – reality in a world drowning in images, will be a defining question of the next decade.


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October 24 2011

V&A Photographs Gallery showcases world's oldest collection

Classic images from Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson go on display at the medium's spiritual home

Photography is a mechanical art. The photographer points a lens at an object, records the image on a plate or film or, today, in digital memory. Therefore all photographs should be similar, the hands of individual photographers unrecognisable. Yet the new Photographs Gallery at the V&A, which opened on Monday to showcase the world's oldest museum collection of photographs, reveals the apparently limitless variety of the art and the utterly personal genius of great photographers.

A photograph of a steam train taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902 hangs near Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1932 picture Behind Gare St Lazare, Paris, on the blue-painted wall of the long, elegantly restored, Victorian gallery.

Both black and white prints portray a ragged industrial landscape of rail tracks in brooding weather. But they are so profoundly different that you almost feel you are looking at two different art forms, two technologies. Cartier-Bresson's image is so light and mobile, an impression of a passing moment, whose meaning is as enigmatic as it is poignant. Stieglitz gives his print a monumental power, a weight, that is the very opposite: a column of black smoke assumes iron authority.

Lightness and weight, the momentary and the enduring: right from its invention at the close of the Romantic age, photography displayed these extreme possibilities in its nature. The oldest photograph in the V&A collection is an ethereal silvery phantom of a London street in 1839, taken using Louis Daguerre's pioneering method in the year he made it public. By the 1850s photographers were shooting such diverse masterpieces as Robert Howlett's 1857 portrait of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, cigar at the corner of his mouth, tall hat on his head, the chains of the Great Eastern falling into Miltonic darkness behind him, and John Murray's icily majestic panorama of the Taj Mahal, taken in about 1855. The camera could capture the craggily real – Brunel lives for ever in his portrait – or the stupendously beautiful.

It is hard to tear your eyes from these early photographs. There is something so still and ethereal about their long exposures, so haunting about seeing, up close, the bumps on the skin of a Victorian like Alfred Tennyson in a portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron. The V&A opened in 1857 and was the first museum in the world to collect photographs – so it has some remarkable things from that age including a gorgeous still life of Venetian goblets on shelves presented by its patron Prince Albert. With its exquisite, uncluttered choice of such superlative prints, this new gallery fulfils the wildest dreams of Prince Albert and pays homage to the sheer beauty of great photographs. Today, with the camera more universal than ever, this is bound to be a popular part of the museum – on the press day frustrated visitors kept trying to beg entry, unable to wait for the opening – and perhaps what it will offer most of all is a resource, a reservoir of some of the most powerful and glorious camera works of all time, to inspire today's practitioners.

The gallery only covers photography up to the 1960s. The museum says that afterwards there was a "shift" in the nature of the medium. We all know how incredibly diverse photography is today, from CCTV images to pictures taken on phones. But has it ever been any less diverse?

Far from a stable and simple golden age of photography when everyone knew what a camera was for and artistic excellence was easily defined, this gallery reveals the camera's first 130 years to be as restless and experimental as anything since.

A landscape by Ansel Adams takes your breath away in a manner quite alien to the magnified stilled milk splash photographed by American experimentalist Harold Edgerton in 1957 (the only colour print here).

This is a sumptuous gallery in which you could spend days meditating on the apparently limitless potential for poetry and emotion in what – by the time you leave – it seems absurd to call a mechanical way of making pictures.

• This article was amended on 25 October 2011. The original referred to the magnified stilled milk splash photographed by British experimentalist Harold Edgerton. This has been corrected.


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Behind the scenes at the V&A museum

Video: Take an exclusive tour of the new Photographs gallery, where images by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus are on display



June 28 2011

Vanessa Winship's poetic portraits

The British documentary photographer's storytelling images of 'borders and belonging' have won her the Cartier-Bresson prize

Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that the taking of a great photograph required "putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis". This quote came into my head when I heard that the British documentary photographer, Vanessa Winship, had won the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson award, which comes with a grant of 30,000 euros to pursue a new body of work in the humanist tradition of documentary photography that the great French pioneer of understated photojournalism did so much to define. The Cartier-Bresson prize is "intended for a photographer who has completed a significant body of work, a talented photographer in the emerging phase of his or her career, with an approach close to that of documentary". Winship certainly fits the bill. With her husband, the photographer George Georgiou, Winship worked throughout the Balkans for 10 years and spent five years living in Istanbul and working in the borderlands of Turkey. She is intrigued, she once wrote, "by ideas of borders and belonging", and this shows in both her portraiture and her photojournalism. Winship is a visual storyteller and, like many photographers, has a way with words as well as images. Her epic four-part series, Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, uses words, poetically and sparingly, to create a sense of mood and context. A portrait of a stern-faced girl is accompanied by the words: "Sat in the crowd the girl radiated the luminosity of her youth. But the weight of place had already set her expression." Throughout, she seems to be reporting back from a suspended place, where the old ways brush against the new.

Her photographs of Georgia merge mysterious landscapes with formal portraits and images of bridges and statues. They add up to a portrait of a country in flux, caught between a creeping modernity and the heavy weight of the past. Her eye for a telling moment or gaze has twice won her a World Press Photo prize (1998 and 2008) and the Iris D'or at the 2008 Sony World Photography awards.

She is perhaps best known for Sweet Nothings, one of my favourite photography books of recent years, a series of black and white portraits of peasant schoolgirls from the austere borderlands of Eastern Anatolia. For such a formal series, Sweet Nothings is loaded with clues and suggestions – about individuals, place, status, gender, nationality and identity, both imposed and created. Wherever she went in the region, from Iraq to Armenia, Winship encountered schoolgirls in their faded blue uniforms, often with "sweet messages" embroidered into the lace collars. Her eye was drawn by the contrast they represented between national and individual identity.

Every portrait for the Sweet Nothings series was taken at the same distance from the subject, and each one was made slowly and considerately, creating a democratically formal approach. This also forged the taking of each photograph into a special event for both the photographer and the girls, whose lives on the barren slopes of this Turkish hinterland are unremittingly harsh. Initially, the schoolgirls tended to be excited or nervous, but as soon as the time came for the photograph to be taken, their demeanour and their expressions changed. "Many things touched me during the making of these images," Winship told the excellent Lens Culture website. "I was touched by the gravity in their demeanour at the moment in front of the camera, their fragility, their simplicity, their grace, their closeness to one another, but most of all I was struck by their complete lack of posture."

Her rigorous approach to framing and composition, using a 5x4 camera in natural light, coupled with the sense of gravitas exuded by the young girls, worked paradoxically to heighten the individuality of each subject. Again and again, the viewer's eyes are drawn inexorably to the often-unreadable expressions on each of their faces.

Sweet Nothings, like most of Winship's best work, repays deep and concentrated attention for its essentially humanist undertow to fully come through. Her approach may seem traditional, even old-fashioned, but it has a conceptual thrust that deepens, rather than compromises, the underlying implications of the work. As the chairman of the jury, the august publisher Robert Delpire, put it: "Her work might be seen as a classic documentary approach but in fact it features a sensitivity and complexity that is deeply contemporary".

Winship will use the Cartier-Bresson prize money to help fund a new project called Over there: An American Odyssey, which will be exhibited at Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in the spring of 2013. It will be interesting to see the results of her journeying through a landscape that, as the film maker and photographer Wim Wenders once put it, has "colonised our imaginations" in still and moving images.

She has cited August Sander, Mike Disfarmer and the recently discovered Polish photographer from the 1920s and 1930s, Stefania Gurdowa, as influences on her portraiture (I always sense Josef Koudelka's abiding presence in her reportage.) All of them, in their different ways, practised a style that could be described as austere and even deadpan, but created deceptively simple, direct and oddly affecting portraits of everyday people who might otherwise have gone unnoticed by history. It has arguably become more difficult to do this as the world has become ever more saturated with images, and the deadpan approach has become one of the dominant – and some would argue increasingly meaningless – modes of contemporary photography.

Winship, though, works to her own rules, pursues her own vision. Sweet Nothings stands alone and speaks for itself, even – especially – in the uncertain, slightly awkward, expressions of its subjects, caught between childhood and adulthood, belonging and marginalisation. A book of uncertainty, then, made by someone who is quietly sure of herself and of her way of seeing.

Now see this

Fireleap is a slideshow of previously unseen work by Nan Goldin. Since 1972, alongside her dark chronicles of her own life and those around her, Goldin has been photographing children at play, fascinated by their lack of self-consciousness and sense of freedom. The results are surprising and engaging.


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April 23 2011

Bruce Davidson

Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson talks to Sean O'Hagan about his 70 years of extraordinary work

Bruce Davidson was given his first camera in 1940, when he was just seven years old. It was, he says, " a primitive little box-type machine" and he used it to take photographs of his suburban neighbourhood, Oak Park, Illinois. "Most boys my age had a dog," he says, laughing. "I had a camera."

A few years later, an older friend of his found a part-time job in a commercial dark room. One day, out of sheer boredom, Davidson accompanied him to work. "What happened in that dark, dank basement in Illinois was a revelation," he recalls 70 years later, still sounding excited,. "Light was flashed, a sheet of paper was placed in a tray of water, an image formed. That's what caught me and drew me in – that mysterious process. It was a brief encounter, but one that has stayed with me to this day."

The young Davidson was so mesmerised by the magic of the dark room that he persuaded his mother, a single parent who worked in a local torpedo factory, to build him one in the basement of their house. "My mother was utterly independent and she encouraged my younger brother and me to be the same way and to follow what we wanted to do. He became a scientist and I found my way through life through the camera's lens. I used it to record my feelings about the world. Still do."

Now 77, Davidson lives with his wife, Emily Haas Davidson, in a large apartment on New York's Upper West Side that also houses his life's work: a room full of boxes of vintage prints from his 50-year career. He is one of the giants of postwar American photography, a veteran of the new wave of radical documentary pioneers who emerged in the early 1960s and also included Danny Lyon, Lee Friedlander and his friend, the late Diane Arbus. "I guess we had different ideas about what photography could do, could be," he says now. "From the start, my photographs were about capturing a mood. I didn't do picture stories; it was more about taking a picture that caught a mood, then building a series that sustained that mood."

This week, Davidson will an outstanding contribution to photography award at the Sony World Photography awards ceremony in London. Two retrospectives of his work will be shown at Somerset House and the Chris Beetles Gallery as part of the World Photography festival. Last year, Steidl published Outside Inside, an 800-page, three-volume box set of his work. "The title says it all," he says, "I start off as an outsider, usually photographing other outsiders, then, at some point, I step over a line and become an insider. I don't do detached observation."

In 1958, Davidson immersed himself in the world of a travelling circus for a year, becoming friends with the performers and capturing their "strange loneliness". The mood of that series tended towards the melancholic and set the tone for much of what was to follow. "I was chronicling the end of something, the last tent shows. Television put paid to the era of the circus performer and you can feel that sense of sadness, of a time passing into history, in the photographs."

In his mid- to late-20s, Davidson was living a monkish existence in a spartan one-room apartment in Greenwich Village – "I had a red light in the fridge so I could eat cold chicken and print pictures at the same time" – when he read an article about a series of street fights between rival gangs in Brooklyn. The next day, he travelled to Prospect Park on the subway and encountered the Jokers, a bunch of bored, restless, cool-looking teenagers who became the subject of his groundbreaking book, Brooklyn Gang, perhaps the first photobook to chronicle aberrant youth culture in America. It remains a classic of fly-on-the-wall reportage.

When Brooklyn Gang was republished in 1999, it contained an afterward by a 55-year-old man called Bengie, who had been one of the original Jokers. In the interim, he had become one of the biggest drug dealers in New York and blown all his money on a long-term heroin habit before finally entering rehab and reinventing himself, in late middle age, as a drug counsellor.

Bengie, aka Robert Powers, was one of the lucky ones. He recounted how several other members of the Jokers died young from drugs or drug-related violence. Cathy, the beautiful blonde girl whose reflection Davidson caught in a cigarette machine as she combed her hair while waiting for the Staten Island ferry, "put a shotgun in her mouth and blew her head off". So affecting was Bengie's story that Davidson's wife, Emily, is now collaborating with him on his biography. "The way I work, one thing eventually leads to another," says Davidson.

He has been a member of the Magnum photo agency since showing his early work to its co-founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1958, and cites the great French photographer as a prime influence alongside Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. "She once said to me, 'Your pictures are better than mine when the people in them are not looking at the camera; mine are better than yours when they are.' There may be some truth in that."

In the early 60s, Davidson spent five years chronicling the civil rights struggle in America. "I made a decision early on not to buy a telephoto lens, to never be more than a metre and a half from the protesters and the policemen I was photographing on the streets. I wanted to be almost in the picture." His civil rights pictures do have an urgent energy that sets them apart from his other work and are the closest he has come to straight reportage. "I was up close and I was quick. I had to be just to stay one step ahead of being arrested. All the time I was witnessing that struggle, I felt I was part of something, not apart from it. That's always the instinct and I think it has served me well."

In 1970, though, Davidson's proximity to his subject matter caused considerable controversy when his book, East 100th Street, was published. It is now recognised as a classic document of inner-city ghetto life, but the unflinching intimacy of many of its interior shots shocked contemporary critics. "One reviewer said that I made the place look too good; another said it looked worse than it actually was." He says, chuckling: "That book made a difference, though. I went back years later to photograph the positive changes and a woman who had been an activist there in the 1970s told me that when the people in power saw the book, heads rolled. It caused a shake-up and the good effects filtered down to the community."

These days, Davidson shoots natural landscapes and, of late, has been drawn to the suburban hinterlands of Los Angeles where the city gives way to wilderness. "I work in the foothills of Los Angeles, where it can get really strange, especially at night. I recently came upon a sign that said, 'Beware of Coyotes, Rattlesnakes and the Occasional Mountain Lion'. There's a strange intensity about the place that I like."

What, I ask, has a lifetime of taking photographs taught him? "That often what makes a good picture is almost subliminal. It could be a look on a face or a detail on a piece of clothing. You just have to go with the flow sometimes. When I was a kid, I played baseball and you heard the sound the bat made when it really connected with the ball; you knew you had a great hit. It's the same with photography: sometimes you hear that click of the shutter and you know you've caught something really special."


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April 17 2011

The photographic collection of John G Morris

The photographic collection of John G Morris

This article has been temporarily taken down on 17.04.11 pending investigation


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July 20 2010

Close calls

An insightful critic as well as a visionary curator, Szarkowski filled New York's Museum of Modern Art with the colour photography of William Eggleston, and championed the transgressive work of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. Everyone who cares about photography is in his debt

It's three years to the month since John Szarkowski died: a good time to reappraise his role as a defining figure in photography, both in establishing it as an art form and in influencing the public's perception. Szarkowski was a good photographer, a great critic and an extraordinary curator. One could argue that he was the single most important force in American post-war photography.

Like all good critics and curators, Szarkowski was both visionary and catalyst. When he succeeded the esteemed photographer Edward Steichen as director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1962, he was just 36, and must have been acutely aware of the long shadow cast by his predecessor. Steichen had curated the monumental group exhibition, The Family of Man, at Moma in 1955, which he described as 'the culmination of his career". Featuring 503 images by 273 photographers, famous and unknown, it had aimed to show the universality of human experience: death, love, childhood. The show had drawn huge crowds to the gallery and then toured the world, attracting an estimated 9 million viewers.

It was, as Steichen had no doubt intended, a hard act to follow. "We were different people", Szarkowski later said, "with different talents, characters, limitations, histories, problems and axes to grind. We held the same job at very different times, which means that it was not really the same job."

More revealingly, Szarkowski also said that Steichen and his predecessor, Beaumont Newhall, "consciously or otherwise, felt more compelled than I to be advocates for photography, whereas I – largely because of their work – could assume a more analytic, less apostolic attitude." That difference in approach would prove to be a crucial one, and it underpinned a new photographic aesthetic that continues to shape our view of the world to this day.

When Szarkowski took over at Moma, there was not a single commercial gallery exhibiting photography in New York and, despite Steichen and Newhall's pioneering work, the form had still not been accepted by most curators or critics. Szarkowski changed all that. He was the right person in the right place at the right time: a forward thinker who was given control of a major art institution at a moment when his democratic vision chimed with the rapidly changing cultural tastes of the time.

Szarkowski insisted on the democracy of the image, whether it be a formally composed Ansel Adams landscape, a snatched shot that caught the frenetic cut-and-thrust of a modern city or a vernacular subject like a road sign or a parking lot. "A skillful photographer can photograph anything well," he once insisted.

In his still-challenging book, The Photographer's Eye (1964), Szarkowski included snapshots alongside images by great photographers, and argued – brilliantly – that photography differed from any other art form because its history had been "less a journey than a growth". "Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal," he suggested. "Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a centre; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies."

As a writer, Szarkowski was innovative; as a curator, he was revolutionary. In 1967, during the so-called Summer of Love, he curated a show called New Documents at Moma. It featured the work of three relatively unknown photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, and was, in its visceral way, as out of step with the times as the urban, edgy, atonal music of the Velvet Underground. It caused a stir. Arbus's images were transgressive in both their form and content: harsh black and white shots of so-called freaks, outsiders and misfits. Friedlander and Winogrand, in their different ways, shot on the streets of New York, producing snatched images of the city's everyday momentum that often appeared to be casual, even random – documentary photography, but not as it was then known or understood.

In his introduction to New Documents, Szarkowski deftly defined the shift in emphasis that the work represented and the attitude that unified the three photographers. "In the past decade," he wrote, "a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it."

At Moma, Szarkowski also hosted challenging shows by pioneering European photographers like Lartigue, Brassai and Cartier-Bresson, and, in 1969, purchased most of Eugene Atget's archive for the museum. The Lartigue show, which consisted of photographs he had taken as a child, was controversial and critically lambasted. The controversy was low-key, though, compared to the tidal wave of outrage that greeted Szarkowski's showing of the work of a then-unknown photographer from Tennessee called William Eggelston, in 1976.

Entitled William Eggleston's Guide, it was the first show of colour photography at Moma, a decision that incensed the critics almost as much as the supposedly banal and vulgar subject matter. When I once asked Eggleston about the reaction to the show, he said, It didn't surprise or offend me. Didn't impinge on me at all". The loudest critical voice belonged to Hilton Kramer of the New York Times, who famously wrote: "Mr. Szarkowski throws all caution to the winds and speaks of Mr. Eggleston's pictures as 'perfect'. Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly."

As time has shown, Kramer was wrong and Szarkowski – not for the first time – was right. His introduction to the book of the exhibition remains one of the great pieces of writing on modern photography. In retrospect, though, Szarkowski's greatest gift was not his brilliant critical mind, nor his ability to help define what is now accepted as a canon of great photography, but his willingness to take risks with his own reputation. By the time he died, on 7 July 2007, aged 81, Szarkowski had returned to his first love, the taking of photographs. He was described by an obituary writer as "the man who taught America how to look at photographs." It still does not seem too extravagant a claim.

Now see this

Nazrali Press specialises in producing beautiful limited edition art photography books. Retrados Pintado is no exception. The book collects images of hand-painted portraits of the dead that appear on the walls of houses throughout north-east Brazil. Here, recently expired relatives take on the appearance of contemporary saints. Collected by Titus Reidl and edited by Martin Parr, the book is available from Amazon and selected photography book shops. At £40, it's costly, but beautiful.


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June 21 2010

Joker in the pack

In 1959, the 16-year-old photographer embedded himself with a gang of teenage New Yorkers to create a moving portrait of postwar inner-city youth culture

In 1959, there were about 1,000 gang members in New York City, mainly teenage males from ethnically-defined neighbourhoods in the outer boroughs. In the spring of that year, Bruce Davidson read a newspaper article about outbreaks of street fighting in Prospect Park and travelled across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan in search of a gang to photograph.

"I met a group of teenagers called the Jokers," he wrote in the afterword to his seminal book of insider reportage, Brooklyn Gang. "I was 25 and they were about 16. I could easily have been taken for one of them."

The previous year, Davidson had become a member of Magnum, having shown his work to his hero, the agency's co-founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1958, he had similarly immersed himself in the world of a travelling circus for a series called The Dwarf, in which he photographed a performer with whom he formed a close friendship. "My way of working," he later said, "is to enter an unknown world, explore it over a period of time, and learn from it."

With the Jokers, the boundary between detached observation and immersion in the subject matter became even more blurred. "In time they allowed me to witness their fear, depression and anger," he wrote. "I soon realised that I, too, was feeling their pain. In staying close to them, I uncovered my own feelings of failure, frustration and rage."

Alongside Ed van der Elsken's 1956 work Love On the Left Bank, an altogether more staged kind of social document, Brooklyn Gang stands as one of the first in-depth photographic records of rebellious postwar youth culture. The book is now hard to find and prohibitively expensive to all but the serious collector (about £800 for a first edition, £300 for a second), but the Brooklyn Gang series is included in the first book of the epic three-volume Davidson retrospective, Outside Inside, just published by Steidl.

For several months Davidson followed the Jokers on their endless wanderings around their Brooklyn turf and beyond. He captured them hanging out in Prospect Park, where outdoor dances were held on weekend summer nights, and lounging on the beach at Coney Island. He snapped the young men as they killed time in a neighbourhood diner called Helen's Candy Store. In his photographs, the Jokers look both tough and innocent, uncertain adolescent kids caught in that hinterland between childhood and – this being New York – premature adulthood.

Davidson's black-and-white images are cool and evocative, imbued with a sense of time and place that is palpable. The gang shared a working-class, Italian-Catholic background, but look like they have walked straight off the set of West Side Story. The girls are timelessly hip in tight pants and white tops, with pinned-up piles of jet black or peroxide blonde hair. The male dress style is Italian hipster meets American rockabilly – Sinatra meets Elvis. The threads are sharp, the hairstyles tall and quiffed, and the attitude, as caught by Davidson's camera, is either defiant or aloof to the point of disinterested.

Behind the cool facade, though, lay a world of trouble that began to engulf the Jokers as Davidson trailed them. When Brooklyn Gang was finally reprinted by Twin Palms Press in 1999, it included an extended afterword by a 55-year-old man known as only as Bengie. At 15, Bengie had been one of the youngest members of the Jokers. He recalled his chaotic childhood as the son of alcoholic parents, and the beatings he received at school from priests and nuns. He remembered that the younger Jokers were into "drinking beer, smoking pot, maybe popping a pill here and there", and how the heroin came later, via older gang members. He reminisces over Lefty, "the first of the gang to die", a line later lifted by Morrissey, the great magpie of youth culture, for his song of the same name.

"If you see Jimmie, he's like the Fonz, like James Dean–handsome," Bengie says of Davidson's photographs of one of the older members of the Jokers. "Later, though, the whole family, all six of them – Charlie, Aggie, Katie, Jimmie, the mother and the father – died; wiped out, mostly from drugs."

The saddest story belongs to Cathy, the blonde and beautiful young girl whom Davidson photographed several times and whose reflection he caught unforgettably in a cigarette machine as she fixed her hair while waiting for the Staten Island ferry. "Cathy was beautiful like Brigitte Bardot," Bengie remembers. "Cathy always was there, but outside … Then, some years ago, she put a shotgun in her mouth and blew her head off."

Brooklyn Gang, then, is a document of inner-city youth culture at a time before the term was even coined. It is also a requiem for a bunch of Italian-American kids who bonded and, for a time, found a kind of community that had been denied them elsewhere – at home, in the church, at school. One of Davidson's photographs, a couple entwined in the back seat of a car, has attained a late iconic status after being used by Bob Dylan on his 2008 album, Together Through Life. The blonde-haired girl may even be Cathy.

"Beautiful Cathy was there, always with her honey, Junior," writes Bengie. "It was very sad to see her die. It was very sad to see her because she was so sad. She was always sad, always fixing her hair." You can see her that way in Davidson's great photograph of her standing in front of the cigarette machine, forever young, forever alive.


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June 11 2010

Just a moment

The world's greatest photographer liked to claim that the camera did the work

Of all the inventions of the 20th century, the small, hand-held camera was one of the most important, since it turned photographers into reporters, ready to capture everything else that was new, and, with the corresponding popularity of magazines, made pictures into a form of global communication long before television. From the mid-1920s, when the Leica – the small German camera with a precision lens and roll film that could be gripped in one hand – came on to the market, photographers took up the energetic pursuit of events like dancers swapping the waltz for the jitterbug. When Henri Cartier-Bresson, at 24, bought his first Leica in Marseilles in 1932, he found the instrument that served him for the next 70 years.

The small camera made it easy to capture subjects on the move, but just as crucially, it made it easy for the photographer to adjust his point of view. Anybody who has seen film of Cartier-Bresson at work will understand how important movement was to the making of his pictures. Truman Capote, who went on an assignment with him in 1946, described him as "dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye: click-click-click (the camera seems a part of his own body) clicking away with joyous intensity . . . "

Cartier-Bresson's pictures were governed by a feeling for structure and balance that was honed by his early training as a painter. If you watch him talking about his photographs on film, he makes a frequent gesture with the palm of one hand, a down-stroke bisected by a horizontal stroke like a priest making the sign of the cross, to describe the geometry of a perfect shot.

It was a description of what photography meant to him that saddled him with a concept he hadn't chosen, but ever afterwards would have to defend. "The Decisive Moment" was the title of the American edition of his first book, Images à la sauvette (Pictures on the Run), published in 1952. It was a quote from the 17th-century Cardinal de Retz, "Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" ("There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment"). But coupled with the following, it was turned into a creed: "To me," Cartier-Bresson wrote, "photography is the simultaneous recognition, in the fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give the event its proper expression." That didn't mean that he created the moment: just that he happened to be in the right place – where he might have been for some time, with the shot lined up, having taken several frames that didn't work – when it happened.

His life fell four years short of a century. He was born in 1908, the year before Blériot's first flight across the Channel, and died in 2005, by which time air travel had become a chore rather than a miracle. He lived through two world wars, and during the second spent three years as a PoW in German labour camps, from which he escaped in 1943 at his third attempt. He lived through the rise and fall of communism in the Soviet Union, and was the first western photographer allowed into Russia in 1954, after the thaw in relations that followed Stalin's death.

Twenty years later, he went back again, to a place that only looks bleaker and poorer. He was in India in 1948, after partition, and had tea with Gandhi only an hour before he was assassinated: his coverage of the funeral would be one of his first major picture stories. He was in China in 1948-49 as it fell to Mao Zedong, in Cuba in 1963, and on the streets of Paris in 1968. He witnessed the atomic age, the space race, the rise of nuclear weapons and the invention of television. He photographed artists, writers, politicians, actors, from Matisse and Picasso to Marilyn Monroe; John F Kennedy to Che Guevara; Sartre, Bellow and Pound. Yet many of his photographs have nothing to do with famous people or world events. His gift was to find in everyday situations – a child throwing a ball, a man jumping a puddle – serendipitous visual connections that came together to express something of the experience of being alive.

In 1987, Peter Galassi, a young photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, organised an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson's early works. These were the pictures made between 1931 and 1935, in France, Spain and Mexico, when he was under the influence of surrealism and free to travel and photograph whatever he pleased. Now Galassi is chief curator of photography at the museum, and he has organised another, far more comprehensive exhibition, with this large book attached. The emphasis here is on the photographs Cartier-Bresson made after the second world war, when for the next 30 years he travelled back and forth across Europe, the Soviet Union, China, India, Indonesia and to the United States – a country (excluding New York) that he conspicuously disliked – selling his pictures to magazines through Magnum Photos, the agency of which he was a co-founder.

"I became a professional photographer in 1946," he said in an interview in 1979. "Before, I was doing photography but I didn't know what I was going to be doing." Famously, it was his friend Robert Capa who set him straight. He told Cartier-Bresson: "Watch out for labels. They are reassuring. But they're going to stick you with one you won't get rid of: that of a little surrealist photographer. You're going to be lost, you'll become precious and mannered . . . Take the label of photojournalist instead and keep the rest tucked away in your little heart."

As a result of this decision he amassed, without really planning it, an archive of pictures that records an unprecedented period of social, political and technological change. The pictures here are drawn in part from MoMA's collection, but principally from the holdings of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, which was set up in 2002, three years before his death.

They include familiar classics – the 1945 picture of the woman in the Dessau transit camp denouncing the woman who had betrayed her to the Gestapo; or the famous pastoral of the French working-class family enjoying a riverbank picnic in 1938 – the first year that workers in France were awarded a paid annual holiday – as well as some new images rescued later from his files. But in all the wealth of pictures, I still found myself turning back to his work from the early 30s, which distils the essence of his aesthetic beliefs: the street in Salerno divided by sunshine and shadow; the bullring in Valencia with its echoes of the circle and the bull's eye; the small boy in the street searching the sky for his ball (not in the picture), against a scrubbed wall that looks as if his ecstasy has been etched across it.

As if to underscore the shift, Galassi has chosen a very different kind of picture to open the postwar section of the book. It is a straightforward shot of a woman in Dessau in 1945. She is half-lying across piles of stone and rubble that had once been a street. One arm is drawn up, partially covering her face. The other is held across her body with a bare hand touching the stones. She is weeping, her mouth pulled back in a grimace of despair as she finally loses control of her grief. It's impossible to know whether she was aware of the photographer as he observes her private tragedy. But the picture takes on a much more public role. It is a picture of everything that war takes away: home, city, country, family, self.

The final section of the book is the sort that is becoming de rigueur in such comprehensive surveys of a photographer's work: a forensically researched collection of background material – timelines, magazine layouts showing how the pictures were used, maps of where and when he travelled. As well as reminding us that there was once such a thing as a documentary photo essay that ran uninterrupted for 12 pages, it's a surprise to see Cartier-Bresson's photographs in colour. Sometimes, though, in his listing of picture commissions, Galassi seems almost too keen to give the impression that Cartier-Bresson went scurrying across half the world at the behest of magazines such as Life, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle and Holiday.

For many people, Cartier-Bresson is still the world's most famous photographer, and his kind of picture, the intuitive, formally balanced snapshot that celebrates a moment in life, is the kind that they understand and enjoy. Cartier-Bresson loved to deflate other people's ideas about his genius. So it is with obvious delight that, in one of several films made about him, he tells an interviewer that what is probably his most famous picture – of the man jumping the puddle at the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932 – was taken by his camera, and not by him, since he could only fit the lens through a gap in the wooden fence, and even if he'd looked through the viewfinder, he couldn't have seen a thing.

Liz Jobey's books include A Photographic History of the 20th Century (Picador). The Cartier-Bresson exhibition at MoMA continues until 28 June.


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June 07 2010

The month in photography

Our monthly guide to the 20 best photographic exhibitions and books



May 08 2010

April 03 2010

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century by Peter Galassi | Book review

Sean O'Hagan is intrigued to find so many decisive moments in a photographer's lifetime

Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that photography was "a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one's one originality. It is a way of life". This big book, which accompanies a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, shows how much photography was a way of life for a man who is one of the undisputed masters of the medium.

It contains 300 images, some of which are familiar, even over-familiar, but many of which have not been seen before. In his illuminating introductory essay, the curator of the Moma show, Peter Galassi, writes: "Cartier-Bresson's legacy… is a vast resource whose greatness would be sorely diminished if attention were paid only to its many perfect gems." What intrigues most here, though, are the many perfect gems that never made it into his books.

The Modern Century, then, is a reassessment of Cartier-Bresson's importance both as the master of what he called "the decisive moment" and as a chronicler of the changing times in which he lived. Though he is best remembered for what might be termed his gentle reportage of everyday life, he was an inveterate adventurer, roaming though his native France, America, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, China, Iran and Egypt. He was travelling across America, when Magnum, the agency with which his name is inextricably linked, was founded.

Take the photograph simply entitled New York City 1946. It is as if he thought any other information was unnecessary. As Galassi notes, it captures a moment of "considerable simplicity and wholeness", but also a moment of intense dramatic intimacy: a mother reunited with her son after the Second World War.

The setting is an overcrowded pier where every face tells a story. The mother is tenderly solicitous, the son overwhelmed with emotion. Behind him, a man looks suspiciously at the camera, his anxiety and uncertainty apparent. Above the embracing couple, a man waves happily in recognition of someone out of the frame while, beside him, another man strains to catch a glimpse of a returning relative or friend. In the bottom left hand of the frame, a child looks hopefully into the middle distance. It is a photograph so teeming with life and drama that it could form the basis of an epic film or novel. It is, in short, the decisive moment writ large.


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March 24 2010

Rebel, rebel

In 1958, a year before the revolution, Magnum wanted to send me to Cuba because they had contacts with the rebels. I'd just spent six months in South America and said no, so I missed everything.

Fortunately, a few years later, I got another phone call. Laura Bergquist, a star reporter with Look magazine, had met Che Guevara at the UN in October 1962, after the Cuban missile crisis. She bugged him so much that he told her: "If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on." She got the green light from the Americans – and I went with her.

We arrived at Che's office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: "Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light." But he said no. I thought, well, it's your face, not mine.

Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn't look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.

We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story. This picture was only an eighth of a page. It certainly wasn't a photo essay, like the one Henri Cartier-Bresson did for Life magazine at the same time. He was in town with us, but only got to shoot Che at a press conference.

After Che died in 1967, this picture took on a great deal of iconic significance. Even before then, some kids from Zurich approached me wanting to make a poster from it. I never heard whether Che liked it or not; there was no response from Cuba at all. A photograph is a moment – when you press the button, it will never come back. This picture is famous thanks to the chap with the cigar, not to me.

CV

Born: Zurich, 1933.

Influences: Cartier-Bresson ("my teacher and friend"), Magnum co-founder David Seymour ("he threw me into assigments like a baby into a swimming pool").

High point: Meeting Picasso. "The man was tremendous."

Low point: Being mistaken for a spy. "Every time I walked away after having a gun held to my head, I thought: you've been lucky one more time."

Top tip: "Be curious, pushy and diplomatic. Everyone takes pictures, so you need to have your own opinion."


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March 06 2010

A month in photography

A guide to the 20 best photographic exhibitions and books, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Don McCullin



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