Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: Photoportraits

Photoportraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

This book is almost 30 years old, so perhaps reviewing it at this late date has no purpose. Be that as it may, I shall proceed. This is a large book with 255 portraits in a very simple presentation. On each pair of facing pages there are between 1 and 6 photographs presented. Single photos are always alone on the right hand page. The most common grouping is 1 photograph left, and 1 right, but there are many sets with several photographs on one or both pages. Every photograph is distinctly an Henri Cartier-Bresson image, and just as distinctly a a portrait. I mean here a portrait in that the subject is clearly a person (or, rarely a small group of people).

The book begins with a preface by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who also appears at least twice on the photographs. The preface is long but slight, filled with André's interpretations of many of the portraits. These interpretations are often excessive ("so and so appears consumed with the sense of his own impending death" and such nonsense) and will certainly tend to color your own reactions to the images. Better to skip the preface and move on to the real content. Read it later, if you like, for a bit of a chuckle.

Stylistically, the portraits are of several kinds.

  • There are formal portraits, where the subject appears to be definitely sitting for their portrait, with the photographer.
  • There are "street" portraits, where the subject is clearly some random but interesting looking person, in public. The subject may or may not be aware of the photographer. Sometimes the answer is clear, and sometimes not.
  • There are "documentary" photographs, the most notable is of Leonard Bernstein conducting.

These are, like all of Cartier-Bresson's work, not trivially accessible. The naive viewer sees them as interesting, but odd. They appear, frequently, to be random assemblages of things, with a person more or less in the middle. Indeed this is just what they are. Like all his work, the rigid composition and strict respect for geometry is completely natural and feels accidental. This is one of the most valuable aspects about this large collection, that one sees the same accidents over and over, deducing that they are not in fact accidents at all. These happy coincidences are completely deliberate.

Cartier-Bresson had a particular philosophy of portraiture. He felt it necessary to include the "habitat" of the subject, and he felt that the decisive moment applied as much to portraits as to anything else. Portraiture exhibits, in the small and in the particular arena of emotion and expression, some of the characteristics of "street" photography. To wit: the subject is always changing and reacting and moving, perhaps very subtly and perhaps in large and rapid strokes. In either case, Cartier-Bresson believed that there was a moment, or that from time to time there arose moments, at which something is revealed. His job was to actuate the shutter at those moments, and to not actuate the shutter at other moments.

These ideas of his are blindingly clear in this collection.

What really makes this book work is the way the photographs are arranged. The grouping of images onto a pair of facing pages is always interesting. There is always a strong unifying idea, perhaps several:
  • similarity of geometry (sight lines, position of subject in frame, position of surrounding elements)
  • similarity of faces
  • similarity of props (everyone has a pipe, or a cat)
  • similarity of textures
  • and so on

These groupings underline and illuminate Cartier-Bresson's respect for geometry and the graphical elements of a photograph. The photographer is not above a good visual pun, placing a black woman in white clothing opposite a white woman in black clothing. Nor is he above a simple joke, placing subjects against posters and the like. A girl against a poster with a hat, the hat over her head. A young man smiling, while the coca-cola girl in the poster behind him looks over his shoulder. A photograph of a man with a large nose with a painting of another man with a large nose in the background.

Taking some time with this book teaches you a fair bit about photography, a little about the visual arts, and a great deal about Henri Cartier-Bresson's work.

No comments:

Post a Comment