History of Art Research Seminar Series
In 1968 Henri Cartier-Bresson's exhibition Man and Machine opened its tour of America and Europe. Commissioned by IBM it – and the accompanying photo-book (published in multilingual editions) – put Cartier-Bresson's brand of humanist photojournalism to work around a cold war world to sell the corporation's nascent computer technology and informational management systems.
A provocative counter to the contemporaneous photographic culture of protest or the photojournalism of the Vietnam War, the seemingly optimistic images depicted cutting edge Western technology juxtaposed with basic Third World craft and agricultural production. The exhibition and book appeared to praise a harmonious technological world of positivist progression over which man was still in control.
The lecture asks whether we can take Cartier-Bresson's humanism seriously. It contextualises Man and Machine in relation to contemporary exhibitions, photobooks and magazines in order to grapple with debates around decolonisation, neo-colonialism, capitalism's cultural imperialism, globalisation, and the utopian/dystopian dimensions of the age of computing. Focussing on the circulation of Cartier-Bresson's images in this period, the talk proposes how we might begin to reframe our discussion of photography's production of politics by thinking of an image's reactionary and radical meanings simultaneously. I approach the exhibition retrospectively from the perspective of the New Left's critique of the commercialisation and corruption of documentary, as well as poststructuralist attacks on humanism – both of which became hallmarks of the 1970s and continue to frame photographic thinking today. I tentatively propose that photography's ideological mobility not only be understood as an inherent weakness or limitation of the medium, but as a means of resistance or activism – as a potential arsenal of unpredictable progressive political affects and effects.
Speaker bio: Sarah James is Lecturer at the History of Art Department, University College London. Her book Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain was published by Yale University Press in 2013. Her next book project, provisionally titled Photography Against Itself: The Militant & the Mainstream, will explore the 1940s, '50s and '60s work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edith Tudor-Hart, Erwin Blumenfeld and William Klein, considering their Leftist political positions and the complex photographic production of militant/mass/popular audiences. Sarah has published numerous articles (Grey Room, Oxford Art Journal, Art History, Photographies), chapters and catalogue essays on photography and art. She also writes as a critic, contributing regularly to the magazines Frieze and Photoworks.