The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Father and Son
Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank
The Heart & The Eye
Ed Barnas
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson . Source: Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Siphnos" 1961

Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank are iconic names in twentieth century photography. In “The Decisive Moment” (1952) Cartier-Bresson posited a classical approach to photography as a confluence of “one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart.” This process of thoughtful observation would sometimes lead to images so well composed they appeared almost staged. In contrast, Robert Frank, sixteen years younger than HCB, opted for a more immediate, emotional approach, quoting Saint-Exupery, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” As one might expect, these divergent views led to a certain amount of friction between the two. The mid-century images on view at the Danziger Gallery under the title “The Heart and the Eye” offer an opportunity to examine their work and evaluate how well their approaches played out in the actual images they produced. Each, fittingly, is presented in a separate room (and neither set is sequenced chronologically).

Photo by Robert Frank . Source: Robert Frank, "Ben James, Wales" 1951

The first room offers eighteen of Frank’s photographs from 1948 to 1962. The early work (late 40s & early 50s) comprises half the images on display, most unfamiliar to me. While these exhibited the dark tonal scale and sometime off-kilter angles that would characterize “The Americans” (1958), they brought to mind some connections: Ben James, Wales reminded me of Bill Brandt; London, Bankers (1951) called forth Paul Strand’s Wall Street image; a Parisian couple in a bumper car screamed Weegee; and the photo of a Parisian waif with a baguette (1949) seemed to presage Cartier-Bresson’s later photo of the boy with wine bottles. There is even documentation of an old-fashioned selfie – a camera appears on a foreground chair as a couple faces it with a distant monument in the background.]

Photo by Robert Frank . Source: Robert Frank, "Hoboken" 1955

Some images from “The Americans” represent the mid-50s and range from the familiar - Parade, Hoboken (1955) - to some less-well-known images, such as the one of a man in Lee overalls seated at a lunch counter in Cleveland. There is a feeling of motion/spontaneity in these images, even if the heads are sometimes cropped or obscured. The most recent photos provided individual examples from his “From the Bus” series and portraits of artists (William De Kooning) at the time his interest shifted over to filmmaking.

Adorning the walls of the next room, the two dozen Cartier-Bresson images cover a much broader time span (1932 to 1966). While there are a number of his widely known images: Behind the Gare Saint Lazare, On the Banks for the Marne, Siphnos, Greece Alicante, Spain, Valencia, Spain, I was pleased to see that the majority of photographs on display were either lesser-known or unfamiliar. As befits the deliberate head/eye/heart trio, the attention to composition is clear. The eye is directed where Cartier-Bresson wants (and, unlike Frank, all shown keep their heads). In the photo of Giacometti (1961), a sapling in the foreground calls to mind the sculptor’s elongated work while a literal dotted line leads the eye to the subject in the middle of the frame. The bowed head of Martin Luther King (1961) seated at a desk is centered, the space above weighs down on him in the early days of the Civil Rights struggle. The spatial detachment of the “fly on the wall” approach is evident in many of the photos but not all: Cartier-Bresson moves in close in several and the interaction with the subject is evident in such images as Kids in New York (1947) and Russia (1955) as well as with the three women in Alicante.

Most of the photographs are hung conventionally in a single row. As if to force the viewer to note similarity in form or to offer a contextual counterpoint, ten Cartier-Bresson’s appear in two horizontal rows: the patterns of Eton over Women Spreading Out Saris or the Hamburg night image of a sandwich-board advertising a nightclub over sun bathers in St. Tropez.

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson . Source: Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Alicante" 1933

Does this selection of photographs illuminate the dichotomy between the heart and the eye? Yes and no. It gives a good introduction to Frank’s early pre-Guggenheim work and offers hints at some of the influences at work on his vision. Inclusion of some “grab shots” from “The Americans” that so shocked critics in the 50s might have enhanced the contrast with the more formal aspects of Cartier-Bresson’s work; however, what is shown of Frank’s work here has its own compositional logic that is just as effective. The selection of Cartier-Bresson’s work nicely brings together better and lesser-known images to reinforce his more classical approach, at the same time including a few with a more intimate emotional component. It appears that the heart and the eye cannot be easily separated. While each leaned in different directions, both had their feet firmly rooted in the acute observation of the exterior world that is the hallmark of the engaged photographer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank
The Heart & The Eye

Danziger Gallery
527 W 23rd St. Ground Floor
Chelsea         Map

Saturday, January 25 to
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 to 6

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