Black and white photos used to seem old hat, in the heady 1980s when all photographs were in bright technicolour. My father loved to take black and white photos in the 1960s and 70s and used to develop them at home in a dark room (the bathroom). A single special bulb would illuminate his bathing of the photographic paper in a sequence of chemicals. Once colour had taken over it was too complicated to develop photos at home and he would send away the negatives by post, to receive the colour prints in return many days later. Those colours are now faded in family albums, the yellow too dominant, skirts too short, the smiles forced. We were not used to posing for photographs in those days, long before the ubiquitous camera phone and the selfie were invented. Each call for ‘smile please’ or ‘cheese’ greeted with suspicion or indifference.
How different then, the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson which is on show now at the Sainsbury Centre (SCVA) in Norwich. His black and white photographs chronicle life in Paris from 1929 to 1985 and capture the essence of each subject through apparently very simple scenes. A young boy, dressed in clothes which are too large for him, stares at the ground, ignoring the photographer who can only be irrelevant to his poverty. A more joyful scene shows a group of school girls looking out at the view over the Seine from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, their school capes dating their uniform and making them part of a long-gone era. There are photos of porters at the big market in Les Halles, known nowadays for a large metro interchange and a shopping mall. One photo shows a porter with a flatbed trolley, carrying an enormous carcass of raw meat, which takes up the centre of the picture, wholesale in size and intensity. This is no holiday snap, the men do not smile, they have been captured doing their job, this was their daily reality.
Cartier-Bresson took many photographs of famous writers and artists, including one here of Jean-Paul Sartre looking nonchalant and effortlessly cool on the Pont des Arts. The Swiss artist Giacometti, is shown walking across the road, in action, as in so many of his ‘Walking Man’ sculptures, featured in another current exhibition at the SCVA.
Cartier-Bresson portrayed Parisians from a variety of social backgrounds. One photo is of an ordinary middle-aged man alone in a café, looking out of the window, he may be waiting for someone or just watching the world go by. He looks bemused and if not quite fearful, certainly isolated. Likewise a photo of plasterers taken in the 1930s, is proof of what looks like a terrible life. The workers are standing in front of a mountain of cloth, with more piled up in front of them. They are covered in plaster dust and stand upright to have their photograph taken in what must have been a miserable and filthy working day.
There is a contrast in the photos between the truly shocking slums of Nanterre, which look more like the shacks of Nairobi or Rio de Janeiro and the relative riches of a fashion show, where the ladies present are well dressed, hatted and all eyes for the new fashion ideas on display. One woman has the confidence to lean forward and feel the cloth as the model passes close by.
Black and white photography gives this exhibition a strong sense of frame and contrast as well as a clear message for us to view. In these captured moments, Cartier-Bresson reflected the world around him and each choice of subject and surroundings give us an intimate likeness of what he saw in Paris through the decades of the last century.