Rethinking the Cold War Traffic in Photographs: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Man & Machine’ – Against the Grain

In 1967 IBM commissioned Henri Cartier-Bresson to produce a portfolio of photographic images depicting human relationships with technology around the world. These images, along with a selection from the photographer’s previous works, were realised in 1968 as the touring exhibition and photobook Man and Machine. In contrast to the images of war, revolution, counter-culture and protest so often mobilised as the visual metonym of the time, Man and Machine appears to celebrate a harmonious, technologically-mediated world over which man is still in control. More than this, it seems to deliberately obscure the stark differences between First and Third World experiences, which are rendered comparable under the leveling perspective of liberal humanism and what was being naturalised as its equivalent: global Capital’s ‘inevitable’ technological expansion, and its supposedly unquestionable benefits. This talk will approach Man and Machine retrospectively – from the perspective of the New Left’s 1970s critique of documentary humanist photography – as well as contemporaneously, resituating it in relation to the image cultures of the Cold War. By doing so, and by reading Cartier-Bresson’s photo-essay against the grain, I propose that photography’s ideological mobility at this juncture might be understood not only as a weakness or limit – the means of its compromise and instrumentalisation – but also as a potential resource; an arsenal of unpredictable and disjunctive political affects and effects.

Sarah James is Lecturer in History of Art at UCL. Her first book, Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, was published by Yale University Press in 2013. She has published numerous articles, chapters and catalogue essays on photography and contemporary art. This talk relates to one of her current book projects, Photography from Below: The Militant in the Mainstream, exploring the postwar commercial work of figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edith Tudor-Hart, Erwin Blumenfeld and William Klein in relation to Leftist politics, mainstream publics and popular culture.

This talk will be followed by a reception.

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5:00pm, 22 Mar 2018

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London