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Indepth Arts News:

"Patient Planet So Many Worlds"
1999-12-11 until 2000-01-23
Auckland City Art Gallery
Auckland, , NZ New Zealand (Aotearoa)

In its endeavour to summarise more than a half-century of human experience within the confines of a single exhibition, Patient Planet follows in the tradition of large-scale humanist photographic exhibitions like The Family of Man in the mid-1950s.

Journalistic in intent, it includes many of the big names of photojournalism such as Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Werner Bischof, Edward Steichen, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Bill Brandt and Herbert List along with lesser known photographers and anonymous images in an eclectic display of more than 250 photographs organised around key themes.

Beginning with the juxtaposition of three faces, an unknown woman’s alongside two world-famous, it asks the question: ‘When we look into eyes, eyes look at us. For the Greeks it was Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders: who carries it for usNULL’ Behind this question, and the themes that follow, countries as well as eras - France, Italy, Brief Encounters, The Creative Moment, Work - is the idea that the camera can catch those single defining moments which represent the complexity of human experience.

Picture magazines such as Life and ‘du’, the Swiss magazine that the exhibition’s images are drawn from, fostered the development of photojournalism from the mid-1930s onwards with the idea that looking at a photograph of a scene or an event could be seen as equivalent to the experience of being there. In 1928 , when du was launched, it promised its readers: ‘There is no picture magazine here in France which expresses the speeded up rhythm of present-day life, a magazine that informs and documents all the manifestations of contemporary life: political events, scientific discoveries, disasters, exploration, sports exploits, theater, film, art and fashion. du has taken it upon itself to fill this gap...’1

The photographers who provided these images usually worked as freelancers through agencies, often presenting independently conceived and completed picture stories to the major magazines. Agencies such as Magnum Photos, founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger, David ‘Chim Seymour and William Vandivert from France, Hungary, Britain, Poland and the US respectively, represented a new kind of co-operative photographic agency, later becoming synonymous with the very term photojournalism.

Life magazine, which sold all 466,000 copies of its first issue in 1936, described its purpose as being: ‘To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud.’2 An essentially American concept of photojournalism, this is contrasted by the French picture magazine du's description of itself as depicting the rhythm of life, a French interpretation of reportage which relied more upon inference and visual nuance. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s subtle portraits of French artists and writers in this exhibition, such as the poet Jean Cocteau or the writer Colette, illustrate this approach.

Bruce Davidson’s series East 100th Street, New York 1966-68 demonstrates the commitment many of these photojournalists had to their work. A personal project the Magnum photographer took time off to complete, Davidson sought and found an engagement with his subjects as if he were there with them, participating in their outings and social rituals. There are no events as such being reported on, other than that of the existence of tenderness and human beauty in this most unforgiving of settings. Like Werner Bischof, W. Eugene Smith and Marc Riboud, also included in Patient Planet, Davidson saw himself as a humanist photographer, who ‘wanted not only to arouse emotion but to do something for mankind.’3

The most successful of the works by these photographers are characterised by emotional commitment and realism as well as by high aesthetic values. Influenced by the enormous cataclysm of the Second World War, they hoped through their work to prevent the suffering that so much of it recorded. When Werner Bischof went to Tokyo for the first time in 1951, six years after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he registered with an equally attuned eye both the tragic casualties of war and the classical beauty of Japanese culture. The same combination of aestheticism and empathy is shown in his photographs of the developing wars in Indochina and Korea, which he visited after Japan.

Robert Frank, another Swiss photographer, moved to America from France in 1947 where he later published the seminal book The Americans, the first such work to make the photographic book into an art form in its own right. Influenced by the great American photographer Walker Evans’ 1938 book American Photographs, Franks’ book built up a series of images which in deriving their subtlety and impact by playing off against each other are not self-contained summations in the style of Cartier-Bresson, but a more ambiguous exploration of the new world Frank found himself in. Several of these, including ‘Saint Petersburg, Florida 1955-56 and SS Mauritania, both wryly compassionate portraits of America’s disgruntled elderly, are included in Patient Planet.

Although it sets itself an almost impossible task, Patient Planet gives, if not a ‘photographic record of our time’, then a fascinating insight into an epoch of picture making by some of the most influential photographers of the last century. 1Fred Richin, ‘Close Witness: The involvement of the photojournalist’ in A New History of Photography edited by Micheal Frizot, Editions Adam Biro,1998.

2Fred Richin, ‘Close Witness: The involvement of the photojournalist’ in A New History of Photography edited by Micheal Frizot, Editions Adam Biro,1998.

3 Colin Westerbeck, ‘On the Road and in the Street: The post-war period in the United States’ in A New History of Photography edited by Micheal Frizot, Editions Adam Biro,1998.

Patient Planet: So Many Worlds has toured throughout New Zealand with the Auckland Art Gallery as its last venue from 11 December 1999 to 23 January 2000. The exhibition is organised by PRO-HELVIETIA - Swiss Arts Council.

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