We Cannot Develop A Memory

“Les photographes s’occupent des choses qui disparaissent continuellement et quand ils ont disparu là n’est aucune adaptation sur terre qui peut les faire revenir encore.”

“We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory

— Henri Cartier-Bresson

The reason I love Cartier-Bresson? It is neither with a love of his photo-journalistic style nor a historic appreciation of the visual world he inhabited that I approach his work, but with a strong feeling of sadness that this world can never be recreated. I don’t mean just the bowler hats and the berets. The interesting things we see in major world cities nowadays are most likely to be an emulation of something interesting than something interesting itself. The girl with a fabulous outfit and outrageous hair would be stared-at in the 50s, now we would assume she was on her way to a 50s fancy dress party (mobile ‘phone in pocket, Oyster card at the ready, probably organised on Facebook).

I don’t think my sadness is some nostalgic sop at the nebulous idea of ‘vintage’; but I will admit here that it is driven by nostalgia. A more detached nostalgia, a sadness that I will never be able to capture that amazing view of Waterloo bridge with a single pedestrian walking, without someone else standing in the way with a tripod (yes, even at 5am Sunday morning); that the inhabitants and visitors to cities are no longer living and working there, going about their daily business and wearing the attire that reflects their social status and work, but instead they are a homogenised form of resident tourist; that cars are built not as shining emblems of a post industrial world but as fuel-efficient, safety-regulated clones whose parts are invariably made anywhere else but here. Indeed my nostalgia really is detached: the only connection linking me with this past is the humble Routemaster buses I was able to hop-on and hop-off in my teens. They are long gone now, save the relics brought back for two popular tourist routes.

In short it is a nostalgia for the fact city life doesn’t make people smile any more.

By inference, photographs of cities don’t make people smile any more.

Various forms of urban photography have stepped-in to take the place of real photojournalism: the ultra-realist style of HDR photography which yields an often over saturated form of photography for amateurs (pros can of course use it to good effect in the same way that photographers pushed and pulled in the darkroom); the contrived but clever form of photography that makes a witty comment on life in an environment (this is the polar opposite of traditional photojournalism, of course), photography that involves lots of pre-planning and design to make sure it looks like it was completely unplanned, and a more interactive style such as the “global faces” concept of street portraiture whereby tight crops of droves of different faces and races with different back-stories are shown. This would be photo documentary as opposed to photojournalism. It vaguely interests me, but it does not hit the spot.

Knowing what we know about Cartier-Bresson and his views on the essence of the simultaneous opportunity and impossibility of capturing a moment, I think we can assert that he wouldn’t have been interested in any of the above. Coming back to my opener, I never really answered the question as to why I love Cartier-Bresson. The direct answer is of course that he did something which photographers today cannot do, and he did it very well.

But the more interesting answer is that, in the same way I feel modern composers do not operate as independent artists within the context of a cohesive social movement – because there isn’t one (another blog for another day), it can be argued that modern photographers are precluded from kind of work (genuine photojournalism worth looking at) for the same underlying reasons.

Meaningful social or artistic revolutions in the modern age are rare. (Probably because we never had it so good with income distribution, corporate quality of life, and welfare state.) But I wonder what it would take to bring about such an event, and whether we will see this in the next few decades? I wouldn’t wish any non-peaceful event to bring this about, but I would relish this kind of social artistic revolution.

There is no way to peacefully undo the good progress of society in regards to equality, democracy, trade and consumer law, especially as championed by the EU; I have no doubt that cars will be as un-photogenic in 30 year’s time as they are now. But perhaps people will be different. Perhaps the world will somehow be worth smiling at in a way that it currently really isn’t.

For my next post on this subject I will be focusing on Adorno’s theory of negative dialectics in specific relation to 21st Century photography. (I’m joking. Maybe.)