Decisive Moments

From the museum's website

From the museum's website

This weekend was the last days of an exhibit at the Art Institute on Henri Cartier-Bresson. “Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris” was painfully short on Bresson’s photos, and none, I don’t think, were his iconic images, though some still reflected his idea of capturing the “decisive moment” on film. I’m guessing more than half of the exhibit was paintings and pictures by other artists. But, it was still worthwhile to see the work of talented photographers (and any show with artwork from Dali, Picasso, and Mondrian is hardly a waste of time). Going to the show also led me to see other things I didn’t know were on display, and to think about a powerful photo “show” I saw some 25 years ago.

What struck me with the Bresson photos and those of his contemporaries was the masterful composition and incredible use of shadow and light. I admire both that painterly eye and the technical skills needed to create those effects, while shooting and then in the darkroom. I ache to have the talent to create photos like that, yet I don’t have the patience to learn enough about lighting and exposures to manage those results. And as far as developing – even back in the days of film (and yes, I know some creative photographers still use it), I was never motivated to set up a dark room and get my hands dirty. Hence, my lack of photographic skill, which I have proven over and over again here at C?WC? I will not foul my discussion of real photographic art by including any of mine here.

...land that I love

...land that I love

The unexpected pleasure after the Bresson show was a separate,  small sampling of Robert Frank’s work from his book, The Americans. I vaguely knew his name but did not realize the impact of the book; the National Gallery of Art says The Americans “is widely celebrated as the most important photography book published since World War II.” Although there is obviously skill with composition and light, Frank’s work is more about capturing an emotional milieu, an America of the 1950s marked by – again from the NGA, saying so succinctly what I felt as I studied the photos – “a profound sense of alienation, angst, and loneliness.”

From the Frank photos, it took only about three seconds for me to remember one of the most deeply moving artistic/sociological events of my life. While I was traveling in Copenhagen some 25 years ago, two young Danish women told my friend Wax and me that we had to see something called “American Pictures.” A Dane named Jacob Holdt had traveled through the United States for several years, documenting mostly the poverty and injustice he saw almost everywhere he went. He became friendly with Black Panthers, saw “slave camps” on Florida sugar farms, and also managed to see how the other .001 percent lives, staying with members of the Rockefeller family. Through his travels, he took pictures – thousands of pictures – going beyond Frank’s depiction of alienation and angst to show the racism and brutality that is also part of our country’s existence.

From his photos and notebooks, Holdt created “American Pictures.” He turned it into a slideshow with his narration and a soundtrack accompanying the images. He then presented it in his Copenhagen home. It lasted for about five hours, and afterward I remember leaving the house stunned. As I wrote in my notebook: “My whole body is rubbery, my mind is dazed…I could barely speak when it was over…I would like this to be shown to every American.” We all could benefit from seeing the personal and systemic racism that has permeated our culture, the violence, the poverty. Holdt has a bias, he admits; coming from a democratic-socialist state, with cradle-to-grave welfare, he can’t understand how such a rich country as ours can allow people to live the way we let the poor live. Yet I also remember sensing that he was not condemning all Americans, as he saw great generosity here as well. And as he seems to say on his website, he knows Americans have no monopoly on racism, mentioning the rising anti-Muslim sentiments among his fellow Danes.

Holdt says others call this picture one of his best

Holdt says others call this picture one of his best

Holdt has shown “American Pictures” at universities across the United States, though I have never met anyone else who has seen it. He says he took his photos as documentation, not art, and surely they don’t have the art-school feel of Bresson and his contemporaries or even the technical skill of Frank’s work. But their honesty, and the themes they represent, give them the impact of great art, as surely as they are a portrait in sociology (or perhaps national pathology). And Holdt’s photos reflect a vision, a theme, as powerful as any artist’s.

“American Pictures” also gave me the sense of inadequacy, as well as awe, that most great art does. I will never create something like that. I will never have an overarching vision. I will not touch people with my words the way this image, this melody, this singing, touches me. But I can appreciate it, and in that, I feel alive. Thank you Henri, Robert, Jacob, and countless others.  Maybe I’ll add “Take one meaningful photo” to my list of goals for the coming year.

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~ by mburgan on January 3, 2009.

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