Saturday, January 27, 2007

HCB, GB, TM, WES: a few of my heroes in the shopping bag.

January is a time of sales. I had to buy four books in one go, a feast of self indulgence in the spur of the moment: A propos de Paris – Cartier Bresson- , ITALY Cross Sections of a Country - Gabriele Basilico -, Photographs –Tina Modotti-, The Camera as Conscience –W. Eugene Smith-.

A PROPOS DE PARIS photographs by Henri Cartier Bresson.

Paris is a sure bet, bound to work for you, can’t miss it. Large and varied enough to accommodate anyone, special and typical and yet cosmopolitan, unmistakably French and still you can claim it your own wherever you come from. It is a great culture, welcoming in a way if you are willing to pay it its dues in respect and attention. There are more than one way of approaching it – from joining the legionnaires for a minimum of five years to a brief if totally absorbing tasting of a petit pain au chocolat- you can get in if you try hard enough. Either fact or illusion, I don’t care. When you are in Paris do like the French do, or watch the show of its life unfold around you never to stop. Many are moved to take photographs by what they see and feel there, others are possibly trying to emulate the great masters of Parisian street photography like Doisneau or even –who would dare?- HCB. It is a very hard act to follow though, as this book shows.

A propos d’Henri

Henri Cartier Bresson is like Mozart: a master composer, a very likeable genius. One is never left to wonder about the point of his photographs, what they are about or why he took them. There is something almost daunting and off putting in the apparent ease with which he has produced so many exceptional images. Most of us would be happy –with reason- to be able to claim one tenth of his oeuvre as a worthy lifelong achievement. The problem with talent like that is that it can make you feel like Salieri: the lesser gifted. We all seem to be well meaning, hard working and somewhat struggling ducklings in the wake of a giant most elegant swan. Ever paddling and toiling with modest results, while he effortlessly glides. It is more sensible to avoid any comparison and let go, look at the photographs and enjoy them.
In general you can recognize a Cartier Bresson by a combination of perfect composition and the presence of some element of surprise or compelling detail that gives it poignancy. In this in perfect accordance to Roland Barthes’s theory of a photograph consisting of a combination of “studium” –objective descriptive and circumstantial elements- and “punctum” as the crucial point of interest, possibly individual to each viewer, but in his case clearly dictated by the author. [Getting this blend right is the key to any interesting photograph, of any genre]. In his conception it all revolves around the famous instant, the freezing of the sudden moment in which elements combine to mean something. Capturing that requires devilish skill, or monumental amounts of hard work. He probably did the latter, thus acquiring the first. Eventually he has become a legend, but never seems to have let that get to his head. He kept his composure, stuck to his guns, refused to be interviewed too much or allowed his face to become well known to the public. He needed anonymity to work the streets, and this he safeguarded against the trappings and temptations of celebrity. When you look at any one of the relatively rare photographs taken of him you see a very serious , intense and intimidating person. It is not hostility or a bad temper though, it is focus. The man seems deeply absorbed, relentless, concentrated, his attention somewhere else. It’s not the portraits that someone took of him but his own work that show us who he was: it is deep and beautiful, but also gracious, light and at times ironic. Often poetic, never in bad taste.

Modern Italy by Basilico.

The first photographs of Gabriele Basilico that I have ever seen were published in the early eighties, in Photo Tecniek International. Black and white deserted wind swept French villages, seaside places in the winter. His series was being presented as the work of a purist on the road, with a 4x5 inch Linhof. This he still was fifteen years later, judging by the series Cross Sections of a Country done in 1996. Something has changed though: his more recent work seems more subdued, calm, pensive and less dramatic. This he accomplished without any loss of intensity, at least in my view, but possibly gaining in subtlety. These are not just documents, albeit they fit this role perfectly in this urbanistic quasi scientific survey of a few stretches of Italy set by architect Stefano Boeri, author of the text. When you send somebody like Basilico – who was himself trained as an architect - on a survey you get more than mere registration, you get great photographs. This thanks to and not in spite of the sharp and transparent diligent collection of details. Very clever.

Seamstress, Actress, Photographer, Spy.
Assunta Adelaide Luigia (TINA) Modotti PHOTOGRAPHS

This cahier of prints is not really a book, it’s the catalogue of an exhibition organized by two galleries in New York. It is proof that the revolutionary Modotti is at last accepted in the art world of northern America, her communist past defused of its bitter aftertaste by the fall of the soviet regime, I would think. So even these photographs that she has made for the leftist press are acceptable, publishable, saleable in NYC. She is not dangerous any more: she is history of art, beautiful and suggestive but hardly subversive . She is dead and buried, let’s sell the prints. It might be pretentious of me, but I find it easy to imagine what she would have made of this.
The story of her life reads like a novel. She has really been all of the above mentioned and more. She comes across as a passionate involved human being, a vibrant woman who has inspired Pablo Neruda those verses that seem to condense the very essence of every woman, as experienced by us bewildered lucky men, lovers and brothers. Strong and delicate, like steel and foam at the same time. In light of this romantic assumption, after all corroborated by the facts of her flamboyant biography, a few things strike me. First of all her best work has no political meaning whatsoever. The callas and the roses, that to me sums up Modotti’s contribution to the art of photography. And some contribution it is, they are amazing. Then a few portraits, although not as strong as that. Her political work was meant as propaganda. Her intentions were certainly sincere, but propaganda simply isn’t art. Even the great Neruda touches us best in those verses that are humanly universal, and leaves us cold with the description of soldiers in the snow, possibly marching to avenge her at the end of the poem. This is not Modotti’s legacy at all. What she stands for is total and honest dedication to whatever is most important to you wherever in life you may be, be that photography or any other pursue. In this light it does her credit that she has decided to give it up, when she felt unable to give it the attention that it needs. She chose love, life, revolution, the party and who knows what else as they crossed her path. Did so with integrity, fully. By the age of 46 she was dead, struck by a heart attack although a political murder was alleged by the Mexican press. Short it was, sadly, but what a life! “Fire never dies”, as Neruda put it.

Mr. Smith’s conscience:
W. EUGENE SMITH the camera as conscience

The only reason why anyone should be apologetic about someone else’s principles, is when this other person might be assumed of being righteous, a bore or too confronting to people who miss the guts or the circumstances in life that allow one the privilege of being pure and free of the need to compromise. Not having known W. Eugene Smith personally I couldn’t possibly make that call, and was therefore surprised at detecting something of this attitude in the text of this book. Fact is that however you look at the man, he seems to have paid in person, and dearly, for his choices as well as his exceptional images. Just by looking at his photo essays –Spanish Village or Country Doctor - you realize the power of his images, and also their great influence on photo journalists since. So many modern award winning shots remind one of some archetypal earlier shot by Eugene Smith, this being in my opinion always better than its modern descendant. Difficult to deal with he may have been, but place him in his time or any time for that matter, and you see a giant. Do I like all of his work as well? No. Would he have gone too far in some respects in pursuit of his vision? Most probably. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely,
I feel it is regrettable that he left LIFE when he did. Given the means and support of such a great organization he would probably have produced more work of that calibre, and the intelligent and critical support of an editor would have prevented him from producing the obsessively long, time and energy consuming series that were his next career step, after he (briefly) joined Magnum. If there is one big contradiction in this saintly beatnik, it is to be found in the puzzling ease by which he would consider it perfectly all right to set up shots, if it was instrumental to what he was trying to say. He seems to have been perfectly unbothered by the authenticity of his apparently documentary photographs and would direct anything, from an explosion on ahillside for a war shot, being even ready to pose himself as one of the soldiers, to arranging any other prop or character in later work. Not to mention his dark room habits, very far from straight printing, more interpretative and creative. He did after all see himself as an artist and not as a journalist, he was in the business of making as much as taking photographs. Would this make him less interesting? Only if you still believe photographs ever to be slices of truth. But they are not, are they? This thesis is convincingly advocated in the comprehensive semantic study that goes with the images in this book. Personally I am starting to suspect that every perfect shot in the history of photography could be the result of fabrication. And the better for it. This is why I am starting to be interested in “bad” photographs. This will be another story though, not Eugene’s. They are easy to spot, the real ones and the set ups. Some are great, some aren’t, in both groups.