Monthly Archives: October 2013

Inspiring, appalling, amazing…

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER: a photographic recordby assorted Magnum photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Inge Morath, Werner Bischof, David Seymour… Published 1985

coverWhen I bought this book, I could barely afford it. I was a baby bookseller, and anyway the book industry has never been noted for lavish (or even sustainable) levels of remuneration. Even with staff discount, I had to save up. But it was worth the money. It’s a superb collection of photographs taken in, roughly, the ten years following the end of World War II, by some of the best photographers of the last century. And probably this one, too.

It’s strange to think, now that – as Grayson Perry put it in his recent Reith lecture – photography ‘rains on us like sewage from above’, just how powerful the photographic image was, and not all that long ago. It can still be incredibly strong, of course; it’s just that it can be difficult to pull the powerful out from the welter of everything else. Not so, once upon a recent time.

wow(Ernst Haas, Returning prisoner of war, Vienna, 1945)

In the aftermath of WW2 a group of photographers (photojournalists, I suppose) met in New York and talked about forming a different sort of photo agency, a co-op – Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Robert Capa, George Rodger and William Vandivert. The last named dropped out; Rodger was often away and that left the other three founder members, so Paris became the base for what was to become the most famous photo agency ever: Magnum. Gradually many others joined, some of the most illustrious photographers around, and the same is still true today. (And today, 22 October, would have been Robert Capa’s 100th birthday – a happy coincidence.)

Some of the photographs in this book date from before 1947, but the aftermath of the war very much informed Magnum, especially in its early days, and many of the shots included here come from that immediate post-war period.

refugees(Henri Cartier-Bresson, Deported Russians leaving Germany for home, 1945)

They show the wreckage of Europe, described as being ’empty, quiet and it stank’. The word ‘peace’ had a hollow ring for many of the Magnum photojournalists; apart from anything else, the war in Indochina kicked in in 1946, and the reality of a Europe with 30 million refugees was never far away. Hindsight gives a terrible reality to images like the one above – what awaited the refugees there was not known when it was taken, of course, though many people suspected the worst. IMG_7411

Others do not need hindsight; the traumatised child photographed by David Seymour in Poland in 1948 – the title is ‘disturbed orphan drawing her home’ – is powerful enough. You don’t need to know what this girl has been through in any detail (probably just as well) in order for the image to have a powerful impact; it bears witness all by itself.

If there is any one theme that runs throughout this book, it is people. People, their strength, their resilience, even though they might be ‘swept along on the winds of history’. And of course not all the photographs are of war; as time goes on there are portraits of famous people, shots of artists (Picasso, Matisse, Giaciometti), writers (Colette – and her maid – or Francoise Sagan or Simone de Beauvoir), singers and actors (Jaques Tati, Maria Callas).

HCBFor me, though, it’s the ‘ordinary’ people, the prostitutes working in 1947 Essen (David Seymour); the women chatting in Paris (Werner Bischoff, Ernst Haas) or coralling children in Naples (David Seymour) or  being chatted up by British troops in Berlin in 1945 (Robert Capa). The dignity of everyday, ‘normal’ human beings is expressed in shot after shot, such as this one by Henri Cartier-Bresson of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, taken – amazingly – in 1951.

So when does ‘post-war’ end? The photographers had different answers. For Ernst Haas, it was the early 1950s when he began taking his famous colour shots. For Inge Morath, it was the day in 1959 when she was unable to park her car in Paris because there were too many others using the available spaces. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it as the 1958 Brussels World Fair, which he shot and where he ‘scented hope’ – but, he said, he felt wary because he thought photography was a way of feeling a pulse, of sensing things in advance, of metaphorically sniffing the smoke in the air which becomes a blazing fire. He went on to say ‘…the world had been totally changed by scientific discoveries made during the war. These technological changes became a part of our lives, creating deeper and deeper tensions so that we are in a world that seems headed for suicide.’ Prescient, or what?

One final note: this is a beautifully edited book (says moi, ever the editor). Time and again photographs are shown in parallel, but in an understated way that informs and doesn’t distract. Take this pair,

men at work

by Werner Bischoff (London, 1950) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Tancarville, France, 1955). Understated symmetry.

Boy, am I glad I saved up my pennies and didn’t spend them all on beer.

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On not being able to read (comfortably)

readingTo sort-of quote Arnie, I’m back.

I can say that with some confidence because I have finally shed my nasty neck collar – which I was only wearing for some exercises, admittedly – and now have what the physio described as ‘a good range of movement’. Painful movement, sometimes, but movement. And I am no longer getting dizzy all the time when I look down. Some of the time, still, but it is soooo much better. For the first time in months I have been able to sit in a chair and read. Am putting out the bunting now…

I’ve been trying not to grumble because I know that, neck injuries being neck injuries, things could have been a lot worse. It seems churlish to chunter about not being able to read anything other than a light paperback when my fall – wet walking boots + wet slate = not good – could have been so much worse, involving the air ambulance and a quick trip to Stoke Mandeville. I have also gained enormous respect for neurologists. It seems to me the medical discipline most close to quantum physics, mixed with a healthy dash of philosophy, alchemy and the doctrine of signatures. Very strange and very amazing.

What I have not gained any respect at all for is the ******* Kindle. Just as awkward for the neck-injured me as a book but without any of the sensory appeal, and – well, let’s just say that people gave up scrolliing through books centuries ago when printing got going. They gave it up for a reason. Grumble. I can see the advantages of using one if travelling or stuck in hospital, but happily I was neither. Very glad to return it whence it came.

The whole experience made me consider something I really take for granted, as do – I suspect – most of us who enjoy reading. It’s just there, right? You don’t really need to think about it. Well, we are very fortunate indeed. Since everything clicked at the age of four and the world of books made it possible for me to run away from home without actually leaving (not that there was anything wrong with home, she added hastily; I just fancied other possibities), I’ve read everything and almost anything. I used to read the back of my father’s newspaper while he read the front; cereal packets held a deep fascination; I could find myself boating with Swallows and Amazons, going through the back of a wardrobe, sitting at the Round Table (who says girls can’t be knights, eh?) or fighting off goblins whenever I wanted.

I never lost that. Admittedly the adventures changed – I stood beside Jonathan Harker and watched Dracula crawling down a castle wall rather than hunted after the Holy Grail beside some Monty Python numpty in armour – but the allure of being able to escape into a book never, ever faded. I no longer needed to read under the bedclothes with a torch, though there have been times when using a torch seemed useful (where’s that Kindle?). And a book can transport you like nothing else, through time as well as place, and into worlds that, strictly speaking, don’t exist and (possibly) never have. I could climb the rigging on a ship of Nelson’s Navy with Jack Aubrey, reluctantly listen to Mary Bennet play the piano or walk the night-time streets of Ankh-Morpork with Samuel Vimes if I wanted. I could read David Simon on crime in Baltimore, Patrick Leigh-Fermor on walking through pre-War Europe or Cecil Woodham Smith on the Great Hunger. I could look at a whole range of Ottoman Carpets, photographs by Magnum members, check out the history and folklore of plants.

And then, suddenly, I couldn’t.

After a few days it became apparent that I was going to have to adapt. If I watched broadcast television all the time my brain was going to melt and run down my nose, and using my laptop was difficult, so I worked my way through my DVDs. The risk of brain liquifaction – another re-run of Escape to the Country when I finished them? I think NOT – was becoming all too real. So I managed to rig up a sort of reading platform I could use lying down, with lightweight books (and the damn Kindle) supported by pillows. That meant paperbacks, and it worked – I could read, not for long, but in relative comfort, and so I did. After a little while I noticed that my apparently unconscious choices had started to develop a clear theme. Novels were, by and large, out. I had to read something I could put to one side, something which wouldn’t lead to me ignoring the pain and just reading on to see what happened, but with one exception. Crime. It had to be familiar crime, though, crime where I knew who did it, roughly, even if I couldn’t remember exactly why. This stage went on for a while, until ‘they’ finally worked out what had happened to me and decided what they were going to do about it. Not surprising, that timing, perhaps – a problem, solved.

Then there were the travel books. I have a lot and I read almost all of them. I developed a particular fondness for the ones where the authors end up in revolting / dangerous / overly smelly / ludicrous situations. Chased by wild bears, hanging off a mountain by your fingernails, being very ill in some yurt? Oh, yes. Travelling around the UK? Nah. Once I’d read through my own selection I hit the local libraries and worked my way through theirs too. And then I moved on, into history. There are some books which blur the boundaries – like The Cruellest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury on the original dog-sled relay to Nome which led to the development of the Iditerod race – so that was to be expected. And then, joy of joys, I discovered I could manage a hardback, which added more to my repertoire since I’d abandoned the ***** Kindle – why pay for something you already own, anyway? (The first ones? Ah, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld books from Going Postal to Snuff, Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit, on whisky – and I can contemplate alcohol again; the physio must be working!)

Next, I’m going to be testing illustrated books. I can’t bend my neck completely without the vertigo returning, but I can manage with it slightly bent. So it’s down to whatever can be balanced safely on a crossed leg or a little table without slipping, and there are plenty of those. But I’m going to give the ‘throw the dice, see what it gives you and then blog about it’ thing a rest. I shall blog about what I’m rediscovering without the element of alleged chance. I know how my life works. If I threw the dice I’d just get the travel books again…