Friday, January 19, 2007

A Beach, a Book and Modern Photography

Two shows have opened at the International Center of Photography that, were I presently in New York, I would jump at the chance to see. The two poles defining modernist thinking about photography can now be seen side by side: First off, Martin Munckasi, whose remarkable image of boys playing in the surf apparently inspired Henri Cartier Bresson to take up the camera because it showed him in a flash its potential for capturing stolen moments on the run, is being given an entire show of his kinetic and sometimes oddly framed compositions (odd for their time perhaps).

According to Michael Kimmelman who did the write up in the Times, Munckasi "favored scenes of daily life, absorbing avant-garde ideas about odd angles and abstract compositions. His sports photographs epitomized his special gift for action and movement: capturing a soccer ball just as it neared a goalie’s outstretched hands or a motorcyclist at the instant he splashed through a pool of water.” It would appear that this impulse in Munckasi's work led Henri Cartier Bresson to recognize that "the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving." Sadly this celebrant of women and joie de vivre, of speed and energy, ended up destitute, immobilized by circumstance, and died in his apartment while eating out of a cold can of spaghetti. I cannot think of a more ironic or cruel end for a man who, like other Europeans flooding into Hollywood and bringing us the archetypal modern art form, the cinema, represents the modernist fascination with motion -- in essence they made it possible for us to see two dimensional reality in new ways, because the motion inevitably leads to skewed perspectives if you follow where it leads. Academic notions of spatial propriety were trounced by a bunch of scruffy immigrants off the boat.

The other pole is represented by HCB, whose own esthetic becomes much clearer to me now in light of the comparison between these two photographers. The beach shot ignited him: “I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks,” he recalled years later. “I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said, ‘Damn it,’ took my camera and went out into the street.” What in fact happened was that HCB took off on a photographic journey that would eventually lead to great things, Magnum among them. But the means of his journey is what particularly interests me because it is so typically reserved: he travelled and created a scrapbook of his imagery spanning the years 1932 to 1946. It is this scrapbook that the show at ICP concentrates on. How like HCB to work in this manner. While Munckasi set out to conquer the fashion world and magazines in the land of opportunity, HCB quietly travelled and surreptitiously lifted oddly complex images out of the streets at home and abroad -- but his was an entirely private endeavor the results of which he pasted secretly into his scrapbook. The kodak family album was transformed into a documentary format that managed to define the modern world not only through its broad ranging content but also through its powerful organization of form which tied esthetic ideas from the world of painting to a livelier sense of the flux of life. In a sense, too, and I say this without facetiousness, HCB was a blogger, patiently recording and logging the serendipitous moments that caught his eye -- private moments of no particular import, certainly not newsworthy. (Even when, subsequently, HCB would turn up at an event to document it, he seemed almost perversely determined not to record it as such, but instead always chose to focus on the peripheral, the inconsequential. He would never have survived at a paper.)

I can see much more clearly now the significance of this famous photograph of the bicycle whizzing past a complex arrangement of perspective and form: it is about trapping that fleet moment, that evanescent event, within a rigorous formal structure whose effect is multiplied with every added line and shape. That tension is present in many of HCB's photographs, and ultimately it is what makes him the more interesting of the two photographers. Alongside the love of materiality's inevitable ghosting, there is a contrary impulse, a need to fix things in place, to render an supremely convincing illusion of their solidity.

"Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing."

1 comment:

shadking said...

great article.. very timely too since i just got done watching this HCB interview.

Even though it is obvious the interviewer doesn't know much about photography, it does give some insights into HCB's philosophy and approach.

Your suggestion that HCB was a blogger and wouldn't make it very far at a newspaper is heartwarming and encouraging.. heh :P

I intend to visit the ICP as soon as I get a chance!