Art

East, West split by the lens

When the Leica was introduced in 1925, a new era in photography began. The compact camera, by being much lighter and more versatile than previous models, gave photographers unprecedented freedom in choosing the subject, angle and moment for their snaps.

The minimization of physical constraints embodied in the Leica also meant that photography became much more a question of the character of the person wielding the camera. This is the premise of the exhibition “Ihee Kimura & Henri Cartier-Bresson: Eastern Eye & Western Eye” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, which, by choosing one photographer each from the East and the West, also suggests that photography styles may express different cultural views.

This aside, with around 150 photos, the first impression the exhibition gives is of the overwhelming genius of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who helped found the Magnum cooperative photo agency and is widely regarded as the father of modern photojournalism.

Cartier-Bresson’s ability to pick fascinating compositions out of the fast-moving flow of everyday reality is astounding. A photo simply titled “Alicante, Spain” (1933) shows three unglamorous women apparently engaged in some kind of roadside beauty treatment, although exactly what they are doing is hard to fathom, except to say that one of them is holding a butter knife. The way the arms of the three figures interlock gives the picture a sense of elegance, unity, and balance reminiscent of Antonio Canova’s neoclassical statue “The Three Graces” — and all this in the blink of an eye!

“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson explained to the Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

“L’Aquila Abruzzo, Italy” (1951) shows the cobbled streets of an Italian town shot from an elevated position. Here, the exact moment of the shutter is less important but Cartier-Bresson’s sense of composition is unmistakable. The railings, curbs and steps divide the picture into balanced segments, across which the various figures — children, women with trays of bread, a cluster of men in the distance, etc. — are distributed in an aesthetically pleasing manner. It is almost as if the scene had been put together with the same degree of contrivance that a painter employs.

Set against mesmerizing works like these, the photography of Ihee Kimura may at first sight seem decidedly second string. In “Subway Entrance, Paris” (1955), he even resorts to the old photographer’s trick of catching people off their guard as they descend stairs. But, on the other hand, the compositional strength of Cartier-Bresson could sometimes be seen as a weakness, appearing, at times, too precise and affected. The dominance of the geometric element in “L’Aquila Abruzzo, Italy,” for example, strikes a slightly chilling note in what is otherwise a warm, relaxed scene.

According to Akiko Kushiro, one of the curators of the museum, this picture demonstrates the difference between the Western eye and the Eastern one. The Western tendency to aspire to aesthetic unity, so evident in “L’Aquila Abruzzo, Italy,” is largely absent in Kimura’s work.

“I think that the difference is that Kimura saw people more,” Kushiro explains, pointing out a 1954 photo of a well-dressed couple in Rome. In what is perhaps the most photogenic city in the world, the background is surprisingly under-utilized.

“I think that maybe he sometimes didn’t even notice the background,” Kushiro comments.

Kimura comes across as a shyer photographer than the brazen Cartier-Bresson; one who is less likely to confront and regiment his subjects. But, at the same time, he seems more genuinely sympathetic. His pictures of Japanese village life in the 1950s have an especial warmth.

This stands in marked contrast to the biting wit and flashes of cynicism in Cartier-Bresson’s work. “Hyde Park, London” (1937) shows an old lady stretched out on a park bench. Her walking stick leaning diagonally against the bench serves to comically echo and emphasize the old woman’s stiff posture. While this makes the photo interesting in the same way as a good caricature, it also drains it of empathy.

In terms of chutzpah and aesthetic sense, Kimura can’t measure up, but his work scores better on the emotional scale. His photo of the playwright, essayist, and diarist Kafu Nagai from 1954 is a good example.

Nagai was a writer who found his inspiration in chance encounters and wrote about the denizens of the city’s lively entertainment districts. Kimura’s photograph of him lacks compositional brilliance and the nattily-dressed writer is not wittingly caricatured. But, perhaps because of this, Kimura manages to capture a true sense of the observant writer, who seems to be afloat in the crowd but also keenly aware of his surroundings — ironically, much more so than the photographer taking his picture!

“Ihee Kimura and Henri Cartier-Bresson: Eastern Eye, Western Eye” runs till Feb. 7 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Thur. and Fri., closed Mon.); admission ¥700. For more information, visit www.syabi.com

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