Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour at Somerset House

The Cartier-Bresson exhibition at Somerset House raises the debate: will we ever be able to see art through anything but modern eyes? What I came to the exhibition feeling (and not so incidentally left the exhibition feeling) was that I struggle to imagine we ever will; for so vivid is our picture of the world at present, and of what creativity can achieve, looking back will always like a pale imitation. Won’t it?


What this exhibition actually asks is simpler. Which is better, black and white or colour photography? Which is more effective? This question came out of the claim and consequential challenge of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), “Colour photography is not up to the mark, prove me wrong!” The exhibition is laid out like a debate between the black and white documentary shots from Cartier-Bresson, and the colourful narratives of fifteen contemporary international photographers, that seem to deliberately – through their bold use of colour – form a feisty rebuttal.


Looking at a Cartier-Bresson in a room full of modern technicoloured life, I wondered is black and white anything but a novelty? A fantastical world of elegance, and of simplicity we are most fond of because it’s a world to escape into – a world that came prior to the complications of our vastly techno-focussed lives.


But all I could think was: isn’t it wonderful what we can do? For me, colour (as deliberate and satisfyingly placed as it is by the photographers featured) only enhances an image. Especially when the aim of these images is to depict a ‘decisive moment’; that is an event, a change of course, something out of the ordinary. I am not here to argue that Cartier-Bresson isn’t the father of modern photojournalism, however it is colour more than anything that exudes life. People over centuries have cursed the thought of life without colour – dull, still, dead. What black and white photographs tell of is timelessness, not that which characterises our idea of a ‘decisive moment’ – movement, thrust, flux.


But of course the above is only true to the modern eye. Cartier-Bresson was yes, stubborn, and didn’t choose to photograph in colour, but that was because he was born into a monotone culture. Perhaps that’s why colour didn’t appear lifeless to him, only maybe…garish, superfluous and clumsy perhaps. If he didn’t think (and conceive of emotions) in terms of colour, then his photographs wouldn’t lack anything for being without colour. For him colour expressed nothing more than greyscale.


Maybe we let our modern eyes dominate. However it’s not our fault that Cartier-Bresson’s shots (here exhibited) are quite so small. Nor is it the viewer’s fault that there’s so many photographs to challenge Cartier-Bresson’s claim that colour is limited (75 colour photographs), and little to maintain the claim because there’s just 10 photos displayed by Cartier-Bresson. The first of these problems of course is not the curator’s fault either. In fact, we are pleased to hear that this is the first opportunity we’ve had to view these photographs in the UK, and so we are privileged to see them up close (and up close we need to be to see them!)


The second problem: that there are so many colour photos and so little not – does make for a full [four galleries long] exhibition, however it can only be read as the curator’s bias towards the colour photos. Overwhelmed by the quantity of colour in the first room (and as one finds is maintained throughout the exhibition), we are met by this bias before we are able to consider the works individually – monochrome and polychrome side by side. The opening phrases of the literature may flatter the photographer for the significant part he has played in the history of the medium; but the exhibition seems like one continual put-down. This begs the question: was the curator able to see aside from his very own modern eyes? And if he hasn’t, what hope have we, led by his directive gazes?


Therefore, what is unfortunate about this exhibition, is that a challenge of Cartier-Bresson’s interesting thesis has not been able to champion the photographer as a whole. And while this is not a problem in itself – exhibitions don’t have to set artists in a positive light in theory, it’s quite clear that he is a talented photographer and the intention was never to prove otherwise. As modern day viewers we need to be encouraged to not view art progressively (i.e. what we have now is always superior than what was had before) because we are ordinarily in danger of this. We need to be challenged to look at the past with new, time-neutral eyes. Or with time-appropriate eyes, as one great art historian (Michael Baxandall) called The Period Eye…


As interesting as the debate on colour verses black and white photography is, this exhibition would do better being known as, ‘A Decisive Moment: Photojournalism after Henri Cartier-Bresson.’



Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, is a free exhibition held in the Terrace Rooms of Somerset House. It’s on until 27th January, and is just one of many exhibitions in London this season exhibiting and posing questions about the medium of photography,

For images of some of the works exhibited visit The Guardian’s In Pictures gallery:


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