I’ve been meaning to visit the International Center for Photography for a while now. I’ve made it to their Jersey City branch but just haven’t gotten to downtown New York until a few weeks ago. It’s a good space, big enough to have a few decent-sized exhibitions without feeling like too much. But you can still do it all in an hour or so. The current round-up of exhibitions includes warhorses of the art like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt coupled with a number of newer photographers.

The newer projects will be their own posts but Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt will get covered here since I don’t have much new to say about them.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 25–26, Italy, 1933
Henri Cartier-Bresson. Downtown, Manhattan, New York, United States, 1947.

The Cartier-Bresson images are all part of The Decisive Moment. It’s always nice to see the classics up close and each time I do so I notice something new like the poster details in Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. Despite how much I know these images it’s reassuring to see that there’s always more to see.

Every time I see his work though I’m struck by how different his in-Europe work feels compared to his work in the rest of the world. I keep looking and even hoping that things will change but where his European work feels very much a part of the life of the place, when he’s abroad the work feels more like standard photojournalism with its focus on the indigent and suffering.

Sometimes this works for me like his photos of the USA which show it as an impersonal oppressive place full of solitary hunched figures just trying to survive. I also love the photo of Hoboken which shows the frozen aftermath of a fire and Manhattan seeing to grow from the ruins. But in many other places it feels more like tourists just pointing out how different people dress. Like in India and Egypt it seems the only point is how everyone is fully covered and hoe different that is from Europe. Instead of being about the everyday life of the place it just feels superficial to me.

Still it’s wonderful to see the actual book on display as well. I know it exists in a reprint variety but there’s something about being able to scope out the original printing and see how the world came to know these photos. As much as silver-gelatin prints are supposed to be the correct way of viewing Cartier-Bresson, most of us learned of him via black and white halftones or duotones.

Elliott Erwitt. The View Looking toward Downtown Pittsburgh from Oakland, Pittsburgh, PA, 1950.
Elliott Erwitt. Downtown Hat Shop Window, Pittsburgh, PA, September 1950.

Elliott Erwitt’s photos are a selection from a project he made in 1950s Pittsburgh that he thought had been lost. They’re wonderful but I feel like I need to be more familiar with Pittsburgh to properly appreciate them.

The most interesting part of the set though was the idea that it was editing 1950s photos with 2014 sensibilities and I would have loved more information about what it’s like to unearth such a project and shape it 60 years after the fact. How many of the photos are things that we only see as being important now.

There’s a lot of race stuff going on in terms of Black residents living and confederate flags just being visible. Nothing dramatic, just more slice-of-life. But it all takes on added import with the events of the past half-decade as we discover how so much of the country is either still stuck in the 1950s or yearns to return there.

That lack of information is pretty consistent with the rest of ICP’s display. It very much trends toward the Pier 24 ideal of believing that the images themselves without context are all that matters. Yes there’s a decent amount of wall text. But it’s not nearly as deep as I’d expect from a “Center of Photography” and instead just gives you enough to be able to recall the official titles of what you’ve seen.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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