Highlight: Photographers home and abroad – Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Rodger

Friday 9 December 2011

Following on from our previous Highlight posts, in this post Elisabeth Dearden takes a look at three defining photojournalistic works published by Robert Delpire.  If you would like to write a Highlights post for us, get in touch!

The Department of Special Collections has been hard at work on their collection of rare photographic books. Among their recent acquisitions are three pocket-sized gems. Published by Robert Delpire in the mid-1950s as a trio, the Collection “Huit” series brings together a few big names of twentieth-century photojournalism: Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger.

The celebrated 'Kissing Couple' found on pages 36-37 of Les Parisiens Tels Qu'ils Sont.

Les Parisiens Tels Qu’ils Sont features a hastily scrawled dedication to Lee, ‘un Parisien tel qu’il veut’ – a Parisian as he would like to be (see image at end of post). It is the same kind of gentle, teasing humour which suffuses the photography of Robert Doisneau, and which has given his work its lasting appeal. Best known for the snapshot shown above, his street scenes are responsible for some of our most stereo-typed ideas about Paris. Sadly, not all the photos are as ‘candid’ or spontaneous as we would like them to be. The iconic kissing couple, were, as it turns out, paid actors who weren’t afraid of trying to make a bob or two more 40 years down the line (see for yourself if you don’t believe me). Charm-mongering aside, though, Doisneau is still a master of his craft: capturing the grimaces, shrugs and confiding smiles of the people he knew in his everyday Paris. This is photojournalism in all its mundane glory, and this is what draws us so irresistibly to Les Parisiens.

One of a sequence of photos showing the Balinese dance which tells the story of the demon queen, Rangda. Found on page 93 of Les Danses à Bali.

These photographs are certainly worth a closer look for their own sake. However, Doisneau’s book becomes an even more intriguing object when considered in the context of the whole series. Flicking through the pages of Danses à Bali or Le Village des Noubas, it’s hard not to notice the striking incongruence with the familiar scenes we encounter in Les Parisiens. Although Henri Cartier-Bresson is known, too, for his whimsical snapshots of Parisian life, Danses à Bali shows a different side to his work. This is the photographer who spent 3 years in the Far East and who was there to document India at the time of Ghandi’s assassination. The images in this book are also documentary, yet they are more akin to something you would find in the National Geographic than a newsreel. They depict, with extraordinary detail, the ceremonial Barong dance of the Balinese.

The ceremonial wrestling of the Nubi tribe. Found on pages 106-107 of Le Village des Nubas.

Cartier-Bresson’s friend and contemporary, George Rodger, also knew what it was like to be on the front-line of current affairs. Having made his name as a war correspondent during the London blitz, he was the first photographer to enter the concentration camp at Bergen-Belson in April 1945. It is said that Rodger was so traumatised by the experience that he could no longer face working as a reporter. He spent the rest of his career in Africa photographing a different reality – one that, to him, was more in touch with humanity. It is striking, then, that in Le Village des Noubas he chooses to depict such a war-like ritual. But in this world, where, as the author puts it, ‘la brutalité n’exclut pas l’emotion,’ battle is more like a dance. The resemblance with Cartier-Bresson’s work is uncanny.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the two books have so much in common. Both Cartier-Bresson and Rodger were founding members of the Magnum group, a photographic cooperative that over the last century has become a household name. It was a collective known for their ‘mini cameras and maxi-minds,’ and it gave photographers the support they needed to travel the globe in search of new subjects. We encounter this exoticism in the work of our two magnum photographers – at first glance, the photojournalism of Cartier-Bresson and Rodger could just as easily be pieces of anthropological field-work. But, whether in West Africa or Indonesia – or, indeed, Paris – the subject matter is still the same: in the end, people are what matter. Viewed in this light, each work is an ethnographic study, and the opening line of Les Parisiens takes on a whole new, infinitely more playful, meaning: ‘Bonjour monsieur l’etranger.’

The presentation inscriptions found in the Collection "Huit" series, from left to right: Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger.

 – Elisabeth Dearden

Lizzie is an MLitt student in the department of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. She works on twentieth-century literature and photojournalism, in particular, the work of Walker Evans and James Agee. She will soon be leaving for a semester of study in the University of Bergamo, Italy.

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