The preeminent French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was scathing about the possibilities of colour photography, claiming in Le Monde that the ‘only good colour photo I have taken’, which appeared on the cover of the celebrated Camera magazine in 1954, was ‘too self-consciously aesthetic’. He continued: ‘Reality is like a chaotic deluge and within this reality, one must make choices that bring form and content together in a balanced way; just imagine having to think about colour on top of all this!’
Henri Cartier-Bresson, 'Harlem, New York', 1947. Gelatin silver print / printed 1970s. Image: 29.1 x 19.6 cm / Paper: 30.4 x 25.4 cm. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, Courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.
A fascinating free exhibition at Somerset House takes Cartier-Bresson’s attitudes towards colour as a challenge, presenting a selection of modern and contemporary photographers whose work, it could be argued, continue in colour the Frenchman’s aim to capture ‘images on the fly’. Although his name is the title of the exhibition, Cartier-Bresson features only occasionally, prints of some works from the 1940s, of variable quality, are hung now and then as a comparison point to others’ more recent pieces in colour. This might prove a problem for those not familiar with Cartier-Bresson, but it does allow more space to be given to the fifteen artists who are lesser known.
Ernst Haas, 'Paris, France', 1954. Chromogenic archival print. 28 x 35.5 cm. ©Ernst Haas Estate, New York.
Fellow Magnum member Ernst Haas restricted his chromatic range in order to keep Cartier-Bresson’s beloved balance. His work Paris, France (1954), showing a nun walking on the city’s streets, uses mainly blue, black and white. Fred Herzog introduces some of colour’s symbolic potential in works like Old Man Main (1959), which features an unshaven man dressed in grey – perhaps someone who has fallen on hard times – in front of a colourful boarded-up shop. Its pastel shades of red, blue, green, yellow and beige hint at the man’s interior thoughts, feelings and memories. In Man with Bandage (1968), Herzog uses white to parallel a man’s injured hand with the gloves of a nearby elderly woman.
Helen Levitt, 'Cat next to red car, New York', 1973. Type C prints. 18 x 12 inches. © Estate of Helen Levitt.
Helen Levitt’s series in Harlem (1973) shares Cartier-Bresson’s off-the-cuff compositional skill; people, objects and street architecture are arranged with an eye for angle and visual rhythm. Bright colour – such as that of a bashed-up automobile in the mesmeric Cat next to Red car, New York – is offset by more muted colours, in the same way the Frenchman balanced light and dark shades of grey. Cartier-Bresson’s use of unconventional framing devices (most famous in works like Seville, 1933) is continued by Karl Baden in a recent unsettling series where the world is composed through a car window.
Alex Webb, 'Bombardopolis, Haiti', 1986. 71 x 47 cm. Digital Type C print. © Alex Webb.
Towards the end of the exhibition is a magnificent image of a Haitian street by Alex Webb, Bombardopolis, Haiti (1986), which, perhaps more than any other in the show, is a piece of pure improvisation of which Cartier-Bresson would be proud. The shot is not taken from afar but right in the thick of the action, a donkey and three passersby in the immediate foreground. But somehow, thanks to the colour of two women’s dresses and headscarves, a structure is created for the eye and, the more one looks, an intriguing visual drama unfolds across the picture.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine