Somerset House, Dec 2012



Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour is actually several unique bodies of work from street photographers of the last half century - and only a few black and white prints from the great man. The premise of the show is in fact a (rather belated) response to his 1960's dismissal of the value of colour in photography.

It's easy to puzzle over such a position with hindsight but consider that the UK arts establishment were, until recently and with few exceptions, wholly suspicious of photography, colour or otherwise. So perhaps it should be less of a surprise to find that there are actually no British photographers included in this round-up. Yet when most London venues buy in foreign curated photography shows these days they have tended to ask for them to be adapted a little for the local audience - usually meaning the inclusion of Paul Graham and Martin Parr, which would have worked well here, in fact, particularly Graham's recent work. Nevertheless, the colour images on display are a fine, if somewhat traditional edit of mostly US work.

Highlights are Karl Baden, (effectively doing the same thing as Lee Friedlander), framing through his car window, but uniquely in Baden's case finding slabs of primary colours, often accompanied by details of human idiosyncrasy whenever he pulled over.

While Boris Savelev's huge, dark prints capture mundanity under an oppressive, almost radioactive sky, there were many photographers, particularly in the 50s and 60s who were perhaps too easily captivated by the vibrant colours newly available to them, thrilled by eye-popping Kodachrome reds in particular. An exception being Jeff Mermelstein who certainly found something more complex and sinister with his ominous NYC 1995 (Red Puddle).

Another from the old school who found her own palette, Helen Levitt's early 70's images shimmer with a hazy perfection of pastel-hue delicacy. The strange but tenderly observed moment of a young girl contorting herself behind the rear wheel of a parked car has a surreal poetry all its own

Robert Walker's precision in the use of long focal length lenses trained across whole city streets result in collages of people, objects and graphic elements flattened in-camera rather than manufactured later on a computer screen.

But it is Alex Webb (one of many Magnum members here) who is perhaps the natural heir of Cartier-Bresson, most obviously in terms of compositional awareness but also in completely and unequivocally proving, perhaps even to Bresson's own satisfaction, that colour could be effectively managed, after all.

As a debut partnership between First View Foundation and Somerset House this is a Christmas selection box of a show - and a further reminder why the street has been a key genre within photography.

 

 

 

 

Until 27 January 2013