Did you know the first successful photographs were taken in France in the 1820s?
Judging by the new exhibition “Live and Life Will Give You Pictures: Masterworks of French Photography, 1890-1950” in Philadelphia at the Barnes Foundation, France is also where the first successful attempts were made at making photography an artform. It was Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) that uttered the words: “Live and life will give you pictures.”
According to retired physicist Michael Mattis — who along with his wife, Judy Hochberg, collected the more than 170 vintage photographs that you can see at the Barnes — Cartier-Bresson had a knack for capturing the “decisive moment” (or as journalistic photographers refer to it, “the money shot”) by taking quick succession pictures with his hand-held Leica camera. One particularly dramatic 1945 picture that he took in Germany catches the exact moment the true identity is exposed of a gestapo informant attempting to pose as a refugee.
“As a collector, I think of some of these photographers as personal friends,” Mattis remarked at a media preview for “Live and Life Will Give You Pictures.”
Barnes Foundation President and Executive Director Thom Collins noted that photography was not among Albert C. Barnes’ collecting interests.
“He wouldn’t have recognized it as art,” Collins said.
Yet there are connections between several of these photos and the Barnes’ collection that are impossible to ignore. Artist Edgar Degas, who appears six times in the Barnes’ permanent collection, snapped a picture in 1895 of poet/critic Stèphane Mallarmé and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whom Barnes loved so much that he acquired 181 of his paintings. Degas can been seen reflected in a mirror behind the pair, the camera’s flash obscuring his face. About a third of the vintage photographs have never been displayed in public, and that’s one of them.
“Degas caught the camera bug, and he drove his friends crazy for 18 months,” Mattis said.
There are also four 1930s photos by Brassaï that employ scratching the film negative, drastically altering the original image into something else. The scratched negative technique, Mattis said, was an experiment initiated by Pablo Picasso. Another favorite of Barnes, there are 46 total works by Picasso in the collection.
Another famous name that shows up is Man Ray, who dabbled in erotic nudes and “Rayographs” — photogram gelatin silver prints of assemblages, with the image printed directly to the paper, and no photographic negative. There’s a 1923 portrait of Man Ray paramour Kiki de Montparnasse, a cabaret singer and actress who also modeled for Amedeo Modigliani and Pascin, artists also represented in the Barnes collection.
Sometimes referred to as the “capital of modernity,” Paris’ culture was radically transforming during this 60-year period with industrialization, urbanization and class stratification, and it turns out there were quite a few talented photographers documenting it. “Live and Life Will Give You Pictures” documents plenty of slices of romantic scenery and glamorous “Harper’s Bazaar” advertising images by German-American Ilse Bing. But you’ll also encounter pictures of homeless people; eyebrow-raising, candid photos of prostitutes; and nightclub characters like Madame Bijou. According to Mattis, James Cameron was sued by Brassaï’s estate over the Jack Dawson sketch of Madame Bijou in the movie “Titanic,” claiming it was use of the 1932 photo “Madame Bijou in the Bar de la Lune, Montmartre” without permission.
The exhibit’s themes include “Paris and Environs,” “Life on the Street,” “Labor and Leisure,” “Commerce,” “Personality and Publicity,” “Reportage” and “Art for Art’s Sake.”
“On cloud nine” over the Barnes’ presentation of his private collection, Mattis clarified that vintage photographs are prints made by the photographer at, or near, the time the negative is created.
“There are five or 10 of any given negative,” he said, adding that at auction they fetch anywhere from $1,000 to $1 million or more.