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Art and Press: Martin Parr at the MEP vs. Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Centre Pompidou

(Paris.) Two heavyweights are competing for the most successful photo show this spring: In the red corner the “Godfather of Photojournalism” Henri Cartier-Bresson; in the blue corner Martin “The Ridiculator“ Parr. Promoted by Centre Pompidou (Cartier-Bresson) and Maison européenne de la Photo (Martin Parr) respectively, they represent two branches of photography, and even two ways to describe the world: Journalism and Art. One seeks to document an event, to capture a situation, the other to interpret what lies beyond.

Henri Cartier Bresson, short: HCB (France loves TLAs), started off as an ambitious painter in the 1920s, soon to discover photography and participate in Surrealist artists’ reunions - keeping silently to the edge of the table as he later admitted himself -, before Robert Cappa told him his talents would be better adapted to the then-new discipline of photojournalism. Initially reluctant, Cartier-Bresson wouldn’t sign the first magazine works with his full name, before embracing the new career and finally co-founding Magnum Agency in 1947 (with Cappa and others). The rest is history.

It’s true that Henri Cartier Bresson had a major impact on photojournalism, as much as defining the rules of the genre. But isn’t it a bit far-fetched to call him an artist? Wouldn’t it be more honest to say, a failed artist he took to journalism? Or did he even manage to master both disciplines? These questions quickly take us on dangerous grounds, to definitions of art as opposed to crafts, and there can’t be any conclusive answer. Let’s try nonetheless.

Of the more than five hundred photos in this retrospective, at most ten per cent have interest for their aesthetic qualities alone. The rest just looks like what we’re used to see everyday in the papers. - Or what we were used to see still some years ago, before the monochrome newspaper got replaced by coloured websites. It is certainly not Cartier-Bresson’s fault that his photos seem so familiar, so typical, as he invented that type. But he seldom went for the unconventional, either. Henri Cartier-Bresson does rarely surprise, let alone challenge, the viewer; he aimed for the easy shot at the right moment. The Centre Pompidou calls him a “master of composition”. True, but his compositions also seem very conventional. He had a good sense of geometrics in choosing the perspective, but he never broke the lines. Legend has it that when Cappa advised him to change for press photography, he also warned him of the alternative to fall into Surrealist mannerism. Looking at Cartier-Bresson’s Surrealist works, one easily understands why. But did the change really help?

The later works were never intended to stand for themselves. Press photography is first and foremost the delivery of illustration to an article; press photos have to be useful. Even if the photographer choses his subject independently, his mind is set on a future publication in a paper or a magazine, not in an art exhibition. A reportage is only relevant as long as the reported situation is. It is destined to serve a purpose and be subsequently thrown away, not to be collected and exhibited in a museum. The reasons to do so nevertheless have more to do with archaeology than with art.

Henri Cartier-Bresson either captured a scene for its aesthetic (for not to use the evil word: decorative) value. In these moments, he created iconic images like that man hopping over puddles behind Saint-Lazare train station. There is no hidden meaning, and we could easily imagine the same scene painted by a 19th century artist. Still, it looks nice. Or he created illustrations for magazines to tell about a specific event. Maybe, he is best described as an “artistic photographer”, not a “photography artist”. When it comes to meaning, to an artwork’s autonomy beyond usefulness and a precise moment in time, he’s not on par(r) (sorry!) with a star of today: Martin Parr.

Martin Parr gained fame with cruel images of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Willingly anti-aesthetic, he shows the ugly side of humanity. Instead of creating masks, he tears them apart, and it is this commitment to truth that makes him an artist. Not the truth of a temporal situation mind you, but those deeper truths of human condition. At the Maison européenne de la photographie (MEP; “European House of Photography”), he shows scenes of Paris and (part-time) Parisians.

Just like every comparable city, the streets are populated with tourists and the natives rare. This is a reportage without an article, created in full artistic liberty to capture the multiple facets of a city. In the context of Parr’s whole oeuvre, it goes well beyond place and time, beyond the spirit of just one place.

Some of Martin Parr’s subjects are easy finds, like the crowds photographing the Mona Lisa (it feels so innovative to take photos of photographers. Then you tell your friends, and realise everybody’s done it some time or another). More tourists are reading maps or eating Alsatian specialties in a theme-styled restaurant (in all its fake, it’s real), whilst still others appear captured behind the suicide-prevention nets on Notre Dame cathedral’s observation deck, closely guarded by stone gargoyles. The local population mainly appears in the form of streetside caricature artists, vendors of miniature Eiffel towers, or Boule players in a park - all of them serving the tourist industry in one way or another. Where does life end and the myth start; what is self-staging, and how to define “authenticity”?

Who is a tourist and who has come to stay? Martin Parr captures the plurality and openness of Paris, its identity as a composed non-identity. Sometimes, he seems to play with racist allusions, as when he shows French soldiers explaining the use of machine guns to multicultural kids (probably at the annual army show on Esplanade des Invalides). There also is that “exotic” woman at a flight show, wearing a white tunic, precious jewellery and designer sunglasses, who stands in font of a sign reading “Let’s shop Airbus”. We immediately understand, her family could not only take the plane, but also a large share of the company (the sign actually promotes merchandise toys). As always, meaning is a construction.

More typical for Martin Parr are teenage visitors of an open air concert, covered in sweat, rain and hair gel. Or the bling-bling anti-chic of a couple on a shopping tour, or half-naked people lying stranded on the grass. Naked or hiding behind luxury: bad taste is human. The photographer not simply mocks moments of human ugliness, he reveals our (fallen) masks. An emblematic work shows models resting backstage of a fashion show, some reading, some sleeping, but all looking very “normal”, far from the artificial beings seen on magazine covers.

And French cuisine à la Parr has few to do with stylish Food Photography: a platter of snails with green filling doesn’t look delicious at all. Disgusting by disguise?

It’s a parricide (sorry again!) of photography. Since the very first portraits in history, we all defy reality, and play a role in front of the camera, despite the technique’s promise to render a true copy of nature. This obsession with control over the own image is also the underlying motive to the latest “selfie” fashion: Don’t trust nobody - nobody can fake your image as you do. Martin Parr seeks not to show the truth of a photo, but a “true” photo, and thus destroys the artificial reality of the image. Like Cartier-Bresson, he searches for that “decisive moment”, only he defines it different: Decisive is not a moment of idealist beauty, but the moment of ugly truth. He “shoots” the false pose and rebuilds the truth from its cadaver.

The MEP also installed a photo booth to create your own, personal Parr. It’s for free, despite a price tag demanding five Euros (Paris...). Just enter, sit down, look at a screen and tidy your hair, then press a button. A countdown will tell you when the photo is taken.

Or so you think. You also think the only extra was the fake Eiffel tower in the background, but you’re wrong. Your portrait is not taken when the countdown reaches zero, but about two seconds later. Exactly the time you need to relax, look somewhere else and assume an overall ridiculous position. That’s your Parr.

In the end, his truth might be just another construction, as false and incomplete as any self-staging, but at least it offers a new perspective.

It’s probably unfair to compare two generations of photographers, yet it’s strange that Henri Cartier-Bresson is shown at a dedicated art institution, the world famous Centre Pompidou, whereas Martin Parr is confined to the MEP, an institution open to all sorts of (and degrees of quality in) photography. There also is the fact, that Martin Parr reminds of Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig), a contemporary of Cartier-Bresson who also worked for the press , but this really leads to far...

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Centre Pompidou, 12 February-09 June 2014

Martin Parr, Maison européenne dela photo, 26 March-25 May 2014



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