Sometime in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power, three great photographers met in a dimly lit Berlin apartment to create a fourth. Munkasci, Robert Capa, and Chim were all of Jewish origin, and now they found their best work refused by anti-Semitic publications all over Europe. Out of work and starving, the trio decided to create a fictional photographer, under whose non-Jewish name they could publish their work.
So the impeccably bourgeois pseudonym of ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ was born. For American publications, the name would be modified to ‘Hank Carter’. The story of this prank is masterfully recounted in Paolo Rilf’s book, “Cartier-Bresson: A Man, A Myth” (1993). Dr. Rilf was initially puzzled by the fact that there no photographs of Paris or France in the early life of this quintessentially French photographer.
Initially conceived to earn extra money, the pseudonym was to be laid to rest after the war in a ‘posthumous’ MOMA retrospective in 1947. But Capa wanted to poke fun at the pretentious New York museum; for eight hundred francs, he hired a Parisian wine-merchant to pose as camera-shy Cartier-Bresson.
Around this time, the photo-agency Magnum was founded to pool photographs of many a lensman for Cartier-Bresson’s debut book. In the coming years, using the byline ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ enabled many photographers to travel anonymously in troubled hotspots around the world; in 1948, he famously reported from India, China, and Indonesia. Dr. Rilf’s book, long out of print but going to be reissued later today (April 1st), is a masterful tale which doubles as a detective thriller.
I have written about this photo a couple of timesbefore. But to continue my yearlong devotion to contact sheets, here is the assemblage of frames Thomas Hoepker submitted to Magnum. On 9/11, Hoepker crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene. In Williamsburg, he captured the above pastoral scene, but decided to hold back the photo for five years feeling that it was “ambiguous and confusing.”
They are things of beauty: grids of small photos that show you exactly what’s on a roll of developed film. Intimate and revealing of the innerworkings of a photographer’s mind though they are, contact sheets were never regarded as an art form. Henri Cartier-Bresson believed they are a mess of erasures, and compared them to kitchen refuse left behind after he had prepared a great meal. But in recent years, disillusion with the click click click of the digital revolution grew — and with it nostalgia for the dark elegance of the contact sheets.
Last few years saw the publication of two monumental works: The Contact Sheetand Magnum Contact Sheets. But long before Magnum editors decided to raid their attics, William Klein — best known for his groundbreaking book New York, 1954-1955 — had the same idea. Starting in the 1980s, he asked his fellow photographers to talk about their contact sheets in a series of short vignettes made for the French television. (Klein also published a book Contacts, where he went back to his contact sheets and has re-versioned some of his original images by painting on them in bold, primary acrylics, reminiscent of a photographer’s standard chinagraph pencil.)
Those who narrated their works for Klein includes such illustrious names as Elliot Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado and even Mr. Cartier-Bresson himself. In all, thirty-six episodes were made, and most of them were collected in three DVDs (divided into Great Masters, Contemporary and Conceptual Photographers).
YouTube has most of the episodes; you can search for “Contacts + [name]” for any of these 36 photographers: William Klein; Raymond Depardon; Josef Koudelka; Marc Riboud; Leonard Freed; Edouard Boubat; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Don McCullin; Duane Michals; Mario Giacomelli; Eugene Richards; Nobuyoshi Araki; Thomas Ruff; Bernd and Hilla Becher; Alain Fleischer; John Hilliard; Georges Rousse; Roni Horn; Sebastiao Salgado; Robert Doisneau; Elliott Erwitt; Helmut Newton; Sarah Moon; Sophie Calle; Nan Goldin; Andreas Gursky; Lewis Baltz; Jean-Marc Bustamante; Jeff Wall; Hiroshi Sugimoto; Thomas Struth; Christian Boltanski; John Baldessari; Martin Parr; Wolfgang Tillmans; and Rineke Dijkstra.
In 1985, the Catholic Church started World Youth Day, a biannual/triannual event where young believers celebrate their faith. In August 1997, such event was held in Paris where Magnum’s Abbas photographed three women praying in the street.
Three years later, the magazine L’Express used the photograph in an article entitled «Dieu est-il misogyne?» (“Is God misogynist?”). The article denounced «offenses faites aux femmes au nom de Dieu» (“Offenses done to women in the name of God”), by all three major religions. (Full Article Here).
Two of the three women in the photo sued the magazine for the breach of their reputation and privacy. They claimed that their reputation was “violated” and they suffered “moral and emotional damage”. The complainants claimed that when they knelt on the Place Dauphine, it was a public demonstration of their faith.
L’Express and Magnum countersued, with the support of Association Nationale des Journalistes, Reporters, Photographes et Cinéastes (National Association of Journalists, Reporters, Photographers, and Filmmakers or ANJRPC). Their demand was a symbolic euro in damages for abusive use of the law. Melodramatically, the magazine told the court, “You have in your hands the future of photojournalism.”
The photo opened a debate over whether photographers and journalists need to seek the agreement of all the people photographed in a public place, and in 2002, the court ruled in favor of freedom of expression, while sanctioning the magazine for using the photo out of context. This solomonic ruling reaffirmed the right to publish a photograph taken without the consent of the people at a public event.
David Seymour, “Chim”, the Polish emigrant who defined an era of sympathetic humanity through his lens, was one of the founders of Magnum. An art lover, Seymour photographed famous personalities such as the art historian Bernard Berenson, musician Arturo Toscanini, and author Carlo Levi.
Arturo Toscanini was perhaps the greatest conductor of the twentieth century, and widely regarded as an authoritative interpreter of the works of Verdi, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. Toscanini revolutionized musical interpretation by frequently insisting that his orchestras play the music exactly as written. Although the great Italian composer generally refused all requests to be photographed, Countess Castelbarco, his daughter, requested that Chim photograph him, and Toscanini agreed. The above image captures the composer at his piano with the death masks of Beethoven, Wagner, and Verdi in a case behind him. Verdi was extremely dear to Toscanini because at Verdi’s funeral in 1901, Toscanini conducted a performance of “Va, pensiero” (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabacco), which ensured Verdi’s success when it was first performed (in “Nabucco”). In 1957, the piece was played as part of a memorial concert for Toscanini, who had just died.