A review of Henri Cartier-Bresson's "India in Full Frame" at The Rubin Museum of Art

Museum Visit

Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame

The Rubin Museum of Art

The Rubin is filled with sounds echoing throughout its floors. The soundscape echoing in the museum is made up of sounds from nature, such as running water and rustling foliage, as well as hypnotizing musical instruments that ring, ding, and gong. When entering the fifth floor of the museum, home to Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition, one feels in India. Well, a representation of India, as imagined and purified by a Westerner, which is perfectly apt for “India in Full Frame.”

The show is filled with photos Cartier-Bresson took in India between the late 1940’s and the early-1950’s. They marry the documenting of India during a great shift into Independence and the burgeoning photojournalism prompted by his co-founding of Magnum. Although the photographs are overtly taken from a Westerners perspective, they lack both the condescension and orientalism of the travel photography that preceded Cartier-Bresson.[1]

Cartier-Bresson’s photos capture India as only his eyes could, geometrically framed, perfectly lit, spiritual. Even the Ganges seems aesthetic through his eyes, masters as framing and positioning as they are. The photo best exemplifying Cartier-Bresson’s natural exemplary composition is perhaps While Ramana Maharshi is Dying in His Last Incarnation, and Thus Becoming a God, His Favorite Peacock (the Gift of a Raja) Strolls the Ground of His Last Earthly Home (1950). In the image foreground is a white peacock, feather spread out like an abstract form. In the background, much less substantial are onlookers, as well as a tree, whose dark branches seem to mirror the peacock’s white shape. As Cartier-Bresson wrote in his book The Decisive Moment, “A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter.” This millimeter instinctive precision lead to the entire composition of the photo, particularly the magic of one of the feather’s seemingly grabbing a man’s head, who is already separated from the rest of the onlookers by the form of the creature. This formal relationship between man and bird is spiritual, and paired with title seems to represent the holiness of death within the reincarnation cycle. When Cartier-Bresson pressed the shutter, it was in an instant, but an instant of perfection.

Cartier-Bresson is able to capture both feel and story in an instant, the printed results repeatedly striking. The first blow I encountered when entering the show is his 1947 photograph, An Astrologer’s Shop in the Mill Worker’s Quarter of Parel. At first glance one is drawn to the expression of a man, returning the camera’s gaze. He sits center-frame with captivating eyes. After this, other elements begin to reveal themselves – the writing on his forehead, the man in the background, the broken English writing on the sigh of his shop, and finally, if one keeps his gaze, the skulls above his head. The frame itself is split into thirds, each one carrying an important part of a story to be told. The sign places us, not only in the specific shop, but in the state of place that requires English as a language. The middle of the frame is the main character, who beckons us to learn more. The third part is the reality, the depth, the elements that contribute to the understanding of him and the world of the image.

Cartier-Bresson sees what other do not. In A Big Pilgrimage Takes Place on the 1st Full Moon of April (1950) the frame, once again, is split into equal parts. At the top is a what seems to be a chariot adorned with winged horses. Below it are the pilgrims, foreheads covered in a white paste. Cartier-Bresson sees the relationship and dynamic between the two and therefore they equally share the frame. This would not be intuitive for the layman, but it is naturally embedded in the eye of Cartier-Bresson.

Not only does Cartier-Bresson identify the relationship between objects and people in space, but he recognizes light as an object and more than just a tool. In his photo Nehru Announces Gandhi’s Assassination to a Crying Crowd (1948), a streak of light hovers and seems to lift Nehru, as another shrouds the crowd beneath him. He is elevated, and they are caught in a tear. In this magnificent framing, with an added motion blur, Cartier-Bresson produces the emotions of the moment, without an overtness one would expect from a documentation of this historic moment. Through his mastery over speed and millimeter changing of an angle or perspective, Cartier-Bresson was able to capture an essence of newly-Independent India in the beautifully nuanced gaze of a documenter and lover.

 

[1] Such as Félix-Jacques Moulin’s photographs from his various travels.

Photographing Without Photography: A review of Nathalie Boutté at Yossi Milo gallery

The advent of photography was an event of seismic proportions, one that rippled into all aspects of human life. Its biggest power may be attributed to how easily its effect on human comprehension of the world flew under the radar. A photograph of  a group of locals in India, could perpetuate the colonialist mindset, a well-angled photo of a steamboat could propagate the grandeur of a nation.[1] Photography also, quietly, changed the art world. Despite the eternal battle to be considered a fine art, with the emersion of photography, the other “beaux” shifted and become more photographic. Enter Nathalie Boutté’s show at Yossi Milo gallery in Chelsea.

The walls of the space are filled with what seem to be large scale prints, only at closer inspection to be discovered as layered bits of hand-cut paper. The shreds of letters left over in the bits create a value, a tone, which when strewn together with others reveal a texture, and finally an image.

The majority of the images are the likes of indigenous people, as well as people of color. In this, Boutté reveals the colonialist gaze, perpetuated historically in the identity-appropriating act of photography. The bits of paper reproduce an image of an individual, but unlike photography, there's a dissonance, a questioning of their original existence. So far have the faces been reproduced, that they claim no humanity. The closer the viewer’s gaze, the more abstract the images become. As one inspects the piece, a face is shredded down into fragmented words on paper. This is not dissimilar from subjects of a photograph, who appear to be human, real, when glanced, but when probed and thought out, the really are just light, a manipulated physicality turned flat, a shred of the original life.

It is fascinating the way in which Boutté can discuss photography without even the most remote flick of a shutter. She pushes forth her notion of the photographic gaze, as well as plays homage to the first picture-taking techniques. Though she claims to replicate the style of daguerreotypes, I would place her more with both calotypes and cyanotypes; their hue and lack of sharpness place Boutté’s creations more within that realm. Be it as it may, these mentioned techniques were implemented from the advent of photography in capturing and categorizing the colonies of Europe, and anyone considered to be “lesser”, under the guise of exploration (and ethnography). This state of mind and style are brilliantly remodeled in the precise cutting and pasting of Nathalie Boutté.

 

[1] The Steamship "The Great Eastern" being built in the docks at Millwall, Robert Howlett (1857)

How to See Like a Machine: A Review of Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures

Walking into the white space of the exhibit was odd. Seeing Trevor Paglen’s art for the first time, after following his work but only reading about it, I somewhat expected to step into a hard drive, and yet the gallery was so typical. White walls, chic, withdrawn receptionists, and tourists roaming about. It was an art show, rather than a shocking, deep web exposé. And then it got weird.

It started with a tour group led in Hebrew, whom I began to surveil; my dyed hair and English note-taking working as camouflage. The group, consisting of around fifteen people shrouded the piece center-gallery, Machine Readable Hito (2017). We all stared at the 16x4.5 foot wall, covered by, to my count, 360 Hito Steyerls.

Steyerl, a friend of Paglen’s,[1] is a Berlin-based artist and scholar, whose work focuses on the digital realm, significantly image reproduction. Her likeness has been seen in galleries before, though in her own work, such as How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), in which she uses technology to shift her face and make herself “disappear;” a piece that is particularly targeted (so to speak) at surveillance drones, a topic not foreign to Paglen himself.

The photos of Steyerl in the middle of Chelsea’s Metro Pictures stick to the aesthetics of passports, the ultimate pictures-as-categorization. Passport photos are used to identify people and are attached to information - date of birth, nationality, eye color, identification number, and so on. In this instance, the images were not inspected by humans, but rather by different facial-analysis algorithms. Some sought to detect facial hair, while others calculated probabilities for not only age and gender, but also for emotional state. While a portrait evokes in people a curiosity as to the identity of the person, this series reduces a woman to data and statistics, speaking to what is happening currently to all humans on the planet.[2]

Despite the enthusiasm of their guide, the crowd, median age of 50, seemed to be rather unfazed. They didn’t even mind much when she hurried them past the video installation on the other side of the wall, and skipped to the back room, for lack of time. Quietly, they shuffled in, and I after them.

Gallery 2 holds pieces from Paglen’s series Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations (2017), known colloquially as Hallucinations. Almost all the images dark, with blurred colors bleeding in from the black mist. Some have a lighter palette, but even they seem to take the tones of gloomy, foggy day, or of the red neons of an underground rave. The shapes on the prints are reminiscent of contemporary abstract paintings, or maybe the photo-transformations of Lucas Samaras, creating an odd feeling rather than placing something specific, though their titles are recognizable terms - Porn, A Man, Vampire, etc. The images are foreign, almost unimaginable. This is because they are a result of a conversation between two programs.

With the assistance of a software platform called Chair, which was also used for the pieces “Fanon” (Even the Dead Are Not Safe) and Eigenface, Paglen taught an AI to recognize literature, philosophy, and history, using image-based training sets, similar to ones used to train, say, Facebook AI to recognize faces and places in uploaded pictures. Paglen then taught a second AI to draw images - ones that could confuse the initial one. These two programs communicated back and forth until finally an image was created that was unsortable by the first one;  an image that has no basis in the first AI’s reality. These are what Paglen calls “hallucinations.”

This choice of word, “hallucinations,” terrifyingly anthropomorphizes machines. In fact, the entire show melts together the artificial and the flesh. In Invisible Images, computers become not only human, but the best of mankind. They are intelligent, learning to sift through data and come to conclusions, but also artists, with more work in the gallery than Paglen himself. People at Invisible Images, on the other hand, become machines, a concept particularly emphasized in viewing Behold these Glorious Times! (2017).

Dressed remarkably in blue tones, the group of tourists seemed to be a single unit, standing in the back room, shifting their bodies ever so slightly when navigating from one “hallucination” to the other, guided by their young chaperone, who paused and gave lengthier descriptions on Vampire[3] and Porn[4]. Saying silent goodbyes to the people who had not noticed me there, I dipped away to the limbo space in between the entrance and gallery 2, to Paglen’s video installation.

Spanning 12 minutes, the video runs quickly through recognizable images as well as hallucinatory patterns. The former is for the most part video bits of faces. The expressions go by quickly, but our human eyes recognize certain information instantaneously. Juxtaposed are abstract forms - pixels and black and white patterns. Despite the abstraction, slowly connections begin to be made. The back and forth between what one perceives as physical versus digital changes the context of imagery, convincing the viewer that he or she is learning. Machine learning. The viewer sitting before the screen starts to see as an algorithm does, collecting information flying by quickly, categorizing images that are similar. A face of woman is no longer her’s, but becomes a part of “expressions.”

The images on the screen, as your faithful reviewer later found out, are a combination of two types. One is used to teach AI - meaning, images fed into the machine. The other is what AI sees when viewing the former and attempting to understand them, it is how AI sees and perceives. In experiencing Behind these Glorious Times!, the viewer not only views like a computer, but actually thinks like one, entering its “psyche.”

There is a sequence in the installation that is particularly curious to me, one that is different than the rest of the imagery. It is a brief cutting between people that seem to be filmed by a computer camera, using swiping hand-gestures. Swipes are heavily connected with technology - they are the everything from Minority Report’s interface, to making choices on Tinder. They speak to human beings’ fascination with the possibilities of technology, but particularly to our complicity in filling machine-learning training sets. In the neo-digital age,[5] human beings crowd-source machine learning. With every geo-tagged upload and profile picture, a new image is added to the schooling of artificial intelligence.

The human race’s survival depends on empathy, on the ability to see through someone else’s eye. There is currently a disconnect between humans and their codependent partner, the computer, as one can’t fully see like the other. “Most images these days are made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop,”[6] writes Paglen in his artist statement for Metro Pictures. “I call this world of machine-machine image-making ‘invisible images,’ because it’s a form of vision that’s inherently inaccessible to human eyes.” Or so it was, until this show.

 

[1] Another Berlin-based friend of Paglen’s is filmmaker Laura Poitras, known particularly for her work with- and documentary about Edward Snowden - Citizenfour (2014). It seems that there has arrison a coalition of data-centric artists in Berlin.

[2] Yes, including those without internet and social media.

[3] A piece that looks shockingly similar to the killer in the film series Saw.

[4] A sign of the times, though targeted at the wrong generation.

[5] The era that is completely engulfed in digital machines and new media; one that includes a generation that knows only existence of virtual devices, rather than analog.

[6] Trevor Paglen for Metro Pictures, “Checklist with Artist’s Notes: A Study of Invisible Images” (2017).