Taking pictures

Peter Campbell

  • In Radin’s Studio by Albert Elsen
    Phaidon, 192 pp, £10.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7148 1976 X
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer
    Thames and Hudson, 155 pp, £25.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 500 54062 4
  • Isle of Man: A Book about the Manx by Christopher Killip
    Arts Council of Great Britain, 69 pp, £9.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 7287 0187 1

When the young Steichen photographed Rodin’s ‘Balzac’ by moonlight in 1908, the sculptor gave him 2,000 francs. Steichen was being treated as an equal: Rodin’s skilled studio assistants were at this time being paid 60 francs a week. Not all photographers who worked with Rodin were treated so well, but because he wanted his work to be known through prints which he had approved, and because he used photography as a way of looking freshly at that work, the collection of photographs in the archives of the Musée Rodin is of absorbing interest. In this selection by Albert Elsen they are published for the first time; they reveal much about Rodin’s methods of work, and many of them are magisterial interpretations of his sculpture. But the book is also a contribution to the history of photography, and it is the light it throws on the relationship between works of art and photographs that concerns me here.

On any but the tightest definition, some of these photographs are taken by Rodin himself. One contract, with the photographer Bulloz, specifies that the artist reserved the rights of ‘artistic direction of the photography relative to their lighting and disposition’, and there is evidence of continuous supervision, as of the correction and rejection of the work of other photographers. In this way, Rodin controlled the way his work was presented to the world: it is significant that from time to time it was work in progress.

In this collection of prints Steichen’s stand at one extreme. The ‘Balzac’, the ‘Clemenceau’ and the ‘Mask of Hanako’ all simplify and dramatise. They are among the most controlled images in the book, and also among the most recent – the earliest are from the 1860s. There are no distracting background details, the volumes are unambiguously expressed by the way the light falls. But these photographs are in some respects less revealing than certain of the photographs of work in progress, together with others which reveal the disordered landscape of the studio. Some show figures swathed in real drapery, so that its fall and flow might be adjusted or imitated; others are drawn over with quick sketched lines that adumbrate changes in the clay or plaster originals. Even the detritus of the studio, the panelling of a wall, or the corner of a cushion, has a point now. Photographs show how the sculpture he made was part of Rodin’s world, and how having it shifted about, and photographed in new juxtapositions and different light, was part of the creative process. Steichen’s photographs, which were so revealing of Rodin’s intentions, also took the work into a timeless world. His ‘Balzac’, for instance, isolated against the moonlit sky, is, like the interpretation of a musical score, a work of art made from a work of art.

Photography allowed both the activity of making sculpture – the changes made as clay was added or plaster carved away – and the activity of looking – of choosing significant views or effects of light – to be included in the ends of sculpture. Rodin, as Professor Elsen says, ‘demystified the studio’, and here the use and publication of photographs was of primary importance. It is part of the nature of this demystification that the notion of completeness – of when a work is finished – should be devalued. ‘The Gate of Hell’ with its shifting cast of figures appears like a changing stage in the background of a number of the studio photographs; it was only reassembled as an exhibitable piece after his death, yet figures for it had been the basis for a host of independent works. In Rodin’s use of photography to make contact with a wide public there is at least a hint of the attitude of 20th-century sculptors like Christo, or Gilbert and George, who have made the performance the art, and the record (very often in photographs) of ephemeral events-the residue of creativity by earlier definitions – the stuff of it. While the abounding physical presence of Rodin’s work seems to deny that discomfort with art-as-object to which sculpture-as-activity is one of the clearest reactions, much of what Professor Elsen has to say about Rodin’s attitudes to photography is interesting because it leads one to use the pictures he reproduces as a way through to Rodin’s way of thinking that the sculpture itself is no substitute for. His scholarship fully justifies itself and enlarges one’s conception of Rodin’s achievement.

‘In the years when many photographers were interested in making photography look more like art, Rodin at times wanted the camera to project his vision of sculpture as one with life. Photography was yet another means by which this dramatist could stage his art and this self-styled “worker” could be an artist.’ This is Elsen’s final summing-up of Rodin’s use of photographs. The attempt to make art-photographs to which Elsen alludes, and which began as an imitation of art, has always been paralleled by photography used as a tool to explore the world. It is significant that many of the images from the early decades of photography that are now most admired (Hine’s industrial workers in America, the Annans’ Glasgow slums, the work of the anthropologists and police photographers recently exhibited in London) were taken to record, not to make art. In such work, the accidental details, which are anecdotaily important in the Rodin photographs, do not interfere with the rhythms of a work of art: instead, at their best, they open up ways of looking at the world which hand and eye might not have discovered. The breakdown of concepts of pictorial propriety eventually meant that the ability of the camera to capture the fleeting moment could reveal, not only the mechanism of flight, or the gait of a trotting horse, but the fact that we are surrounded by a visual flow which can be framed and frozen into images in which the creative act is the recognition, not the construction, of form.

Of the photographers who have turned this kind of eye onto the world, Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the two or three greatest. The way his pictures are taken and presented avoids the suppression of anything which falls within the viewfinder when he releases the shutter. The photographs are never cropped, the prints he has made are soft – that is to say, processed in such a way that the maximum amount of information is kept in both shadows and highlights. In this latest book, Henri Carrier-Bresson: Photographer, a beautifully produced collection covering the whole range of his work, they are not even juxtaposed: each reproduction faces a blank page. The light is always what was available, the lenses used give images which match the amount of the world the eye grabs at a glance. The piled-up crowds of long lenses and the exaggerated perspectives of wide-angle lenses are not sought. His subjects are not posed (which is not to say they are always unconcsious of the camera). It is as though he is emphasising that his art is one of moving and seeing-of placing his eye in relation to the world, so that the world becomes a picture.

Shifting the point of view by a few inches or travelling to a new continent both seem, in his pictures, ways of making the world compose itself. Because the pursuit is primarily aesthetic, the extremes of joy and misery are not sought out: he is famous for having his back to the event and his camera pointing towards the crowd. Because his pictures work in abstract terms, they do not seem to turn anonymous strangers into symbols of peasant virtue, mother love, the pity of war, and so on; the public faces in his pictures are similarly freed from the need to be icons of greatness. In all his best pictures there is a sense of discovery. But the significance of what is discovered is often obscure, and the language of critics who have tried to put into words what seems to them to lie at the centre of his work often becomes extravagantly metaphysical. In the foreword to this collection, for example, Yves Bonnefoy, having made a long comparison between Cartier-Bresson’s art and the teachings of a Zen master, writes: The immediate consequence of this experience, intrinsically inward, in spite of its push outward, toward the elsewhere, the unexpected, is that we must guard against interpreting Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photpgraphs on the basis of something which, in their excess of riches, we may also see in them: the testimony of an aware, clear-thinking man to a sociological, or historical, reality.’ Such obscurity, coupled with an insistence that the events he was close to (Mao’s victory in China, the death of Gandhi) were in his case the occasion of art, is typical of much comment on his work. Yet his recent Sunday Times photographs of French clerics outside Paris during the Pope’s visit were, in that context, news pictures, although news pictures with the exceptional virtue of using no rhetorical device to tell you what significance you should give to the event. In this they differ, not only from some kinds of art-photograph, but from the major part of the tradition of photo-journalism.

Christopher Killip’s photographs of the Isle of Man have been published by the Arts Council in a volume so beautifully printed that it is a work of craft to be admired in its own right. The pictures sit in the midst of wide white margins. The sober immobility of the people confirms what the fine detail of grass, stone and flesh had already announced: that the camera they stood before was a stolid thing-certainly no portable extension of a moving eye. The portraits are often taken close to a background: the texture of skin contrasts with the grain of wood, the painted planks of a boat, or stone. Some see in this detail the physical expression of a kind of warts-and-all truthfulness. John Berger says in his introduction: ‘When I first looked at these photographs I dismissed them as derivative ... something stronger drew me back ... I like to think it was a recalcitrant response to their truthfulness.’ The truth he sees is essentially documentary: ‘The faces of the people reveal their experience, and the weather and formations of the place reveal its harshness.’ He trusts them: ‘What I know about the Isle of Man I know mostly through these photographs. (I have never been there.)’

These pictures could only have been made, Killip says in his introductory letter, because ‘I could be named and placed by the people I photographed because of my grandmother, or because of my father ...’ This knowledge of relationship between photographer and subject seems to me to come much closer to explaining the force of the pictures than do Berger-like speculations about the subjects’ experience. It reminds one that these are individuals, that there is no convincing science of physiognomy, and plenty of evidence that people do sometimes read things into pictures that are demonstrably not there. In looking through new photographs, one wonders whether, for all the miles of film exposed every day, we will have anything to match the record of the world which is preserved in prints from the first few decades of photography.