Critics and controversy

There is a new exhibition of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. I look forward to seeing it in person in the near future. I have long been a fan of Cartier-Bresson’s work. His was some of the first important work I saw when I was studying the history of photography. The work showed me how photography could be so much more than just a representation of the scene in front of the camera. Up to that point I had learned most of what I knew about photography from a commercial photographer turned photo teacher. Starting from that point, Cartier-Bresson’s work was a paradigm shift for me. In the recent review in the New York Times of the new Cartier-Bresson exhibition, the reviewer is attempting to similarly shift the paradigm of how we should consider the work of Cartier-Bresson. His approach struck me as almost absurd (and his review had factual errors.)

I will be the first to admit I have not yet scene the show, but if you read the review at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/arts/design/09cartier.html you will quickly see that the review is a commentary on the photographer’s larger body of work, not this particular exhibition. As far as I can tell, the reviewer, Holland Cotter, set out with a predefined perspective on the photographer and then once he saw the show, filled in the details.

The review is about the life and work of Cartier-Bresson and the exhibition was the reviewer’s opportunity to talk about that. I would also suggest that the reviewer said to himself, consciously or otherwise, something like, “at all costs I will not glorify someone who has spent decades being glorified.” Cartier-Bresson certainly is a photographer who has been widely praised. On the other hand he was a master at what he did as a photographer.

Over the years, I have read many reviews written by the staff art critic of The New York Times, Holland Cotter. Some were amusing. Some were offensive. I have learned in reading them generally, he starts with an idea about the artist, the work or the cultural milieu that the work exists within. Then he uses the exhibition (or sometimes the reaction to that,) as way to make his point. Frankly, most of the times I have never felt like I knew enough about the artists he was writing about to react intelligently.

In the case Henri Cartier-Bresson, I do know enough to respond intelligently. For a reviewer like Cotter, who I generally find to be pretty intelligent, there is a shocking factual error in the review. Cotter writes” “Cartier-Bresson … set a model for modern photojournalism, a field he basically invented.” He certainly set a model but he hardly invented the field. Such a sweeping statement would offend the late Dr. Erich Salomon and Alfred Eisenstaedt, who were among the pioneers of modern photojournalism.

Cartier-Bresson’s work is very important in the history of the medium. His passion for the found moment (as compared to the contrived moment) shaped generations of photographers who followed him. If there is a historical moment that he seized, it is the fact that his passion for the decisive moment and the technology to capture that, his beloved Leica, developed almost symbiotically in his hands (and in his career.)

I will be the first to admit I have my issues with Cartier-Bresson. Sometime I found him a bit disingenuous. As a starving college student and young photographer, I always found his famous line “A small allowance enabled me to get along, and I worked with enjoyment” to be an understatement. In fact he came from a wealthy family, so initially earning a living was not his first priority. I am someone who never had such an allowance and always has had to support myself. I have long believed that a given photographer’s economic situation does have an extraordinary impact on his or her success (or failure,) as an artist. I cannot say if I would have been more or less successful with such an allowance, but I certainly would like to have had the opportunity to try life with one. But that is another blog entry.

The core of Cotter’s argument, following that of the show’s curator, Peter Galassi, is to contrast Cartier-Bresson’s work with that of Robert Frank. Both were Europeans who spent time photographing America with varying degrees of empathy and criticism. Cotter prefers Frank’s work to Cartier-Bresson’s. Cotter writes, “Mr. Frank’s preference was to compress, cut away, create weight; Cartier-Bresson’s was to keep moving, shooting, taking in more and more and more.”

That is unlike my experience of the two photographers. I always found Cartier-Bresson’s work to offer insight while Frank’s work was intended solely to generate controversy. I know it is almost blasphemy in photography circles to say it, but, looking at Frank’s work as simply photographs, I have always found them rather banal. They rarely use the language of photography in any particularly powerful way. They have compelling content, certainly, but as photographs I have always found them rather flat.

If you consider his work as that of a critic confronting a social milieu of America in the conformist 1950’s, then Frank’s work was revolutionary. His photography is and always was about the subject matter and what he thought about that. On the other hand, Frank has rarely drawn on the magic of photography, in the way that so much of Cartier-Bresson’s work does. Cartier-Bresson vs Frank? As I joke with my students, Apples and pick up trucks. They have little in common.

Though I do not agree with the larger perspective of the reviewer, it is an interesting read. It reminds me that in so much of journalism today, the reviewer is more interested in generating controversy than offering insight. Sounds a bit like the work of Robert Frank, no?

If Holland Cotter wants to generate controversy, he might want to emulate the columnist Frank Rich the regular author of longer-form essays for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. As the former New York Times chief drama critic, he once lambasted theatrical productions on and off Broadway. In his new role, Rich is very above board about taking on the theater that is contemporary life, with a particular focus on politics and government. When you are reading Rich’s pieces, lambasting events in Washington, DC, whether you agree or not, you know where he is coming from and what he has for an agenda. I wish Holland Cotter would be equally straightforward in his work as an art critic.

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