A masterclass in story-telling

Aboard Le Mistral, France, 1975
Antique Shop Window, Beijing, 1965
Two Women (Gloucester Road), 1961
Smoky World, 1959
Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Place de l’Europe, Paris, France, 1932
New York, 1947
Beauty with Lines, 1960s
Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, United States, 1958
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The development of the daguerreotype process in 1939 France enabled the production of permanent, detailed images with relatively short exposure times. It took a while, but black-and-white photography became acceptable as an art form by the twentieth century. With France being the epicentre of both photography’s development and an artistic hub, it is understandable that The National Library of France (Bibliotheque nationale de France, a.k.a. BnF) has a spectacular collection of notable photographs, many brought to the M+ Museum for this exhibition.

Charles Harbutt

A well-dressed woman travels on a luxury express train in Charles Harbutt’s 1975 print Aboard Le Mistral, France. Her body language is pensive, and sunlight dramatically flows over her. Light and shadows point to an empty seat, hinting something is amiss regarding an absent companion. The image is beautiful and dramatic; it questions the viewer. Why is she travelling? Is she travelling towards or away from something, someone? Is her companion travelling with her? Why is she pensive? Was this a lucky shot, or was it staged?

Nothing in this image is accidental. Harbutt purposely included two empty seats; he could have asked her to smile and look at the camera, and he could have taken the picture from above or from the door, but by shooting her from eye level, he made the viewer her equal, her partner in the unnamed problem. The image prompts us to be empathetic, imagine when we might have similar feelings and draw out our own story. It is a beautiful picture of an honest moment that is easily overlooked if not for the observational skills of the photographer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Similarly, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Place de I’Europe, Paris, France (1932) by Henri Cartier-Bresson was no accident, and it was not staged. Cartier-Bresson recognised the potential of the reflective puddle and the painted image of a jumping figure in the background. He noticed people regularly travelled this path. He waited for the right moment to take the picture. He called this “the decisive moment”. This was a hallmark of his journalistic photography. The caption beside this image describes it as “the precise moment when all elements come together to form a balanced, meaningful image. With perfect composition captured in an instant, Cartier-Bresson demonstrated his ability to translate the beauty of the everyday and transform an ordinary moment into an extraordinary one.”

Fan Ho

Fan Ho, a local photographer working in the 1950s, could also see beauty overlooked by others. He recognised that the lights, shadows and dust of the open-roofed Central Market provided a dramatic setting for his image Smoky World. He set up his large format camera close to the ground and waited for the decisive moment. Half a century later, that image still inspires us to imagine stories about the characters.     

As this technology and skills advanced, artist-photographers began using the medium to present images that offered new readings of universal truths

Noir & Blanc: A Story of Photography

In a world saturated with digital images and hurried snapshots, this concentrated collection of crafted works is an invitation to slow down, observe and connect with the stories they hold. They challenge us to appreciate the beauty in the ordinary, the complexity in a single expression and the universality of human experience captured through a photographer’s unique lens. This exhibition compels us to look deeper, feel more profoundly and be reminded of the stories waiting to be discovered in every frame.