Friday 20 November 2009

Brian Brake looks at Pablo Picasso

Brian Brake (1927 -1988) is going to be the subject of a major survey exhibition curated by Athol McCredie for Te Papa Museum of New Zealand in 2010. This will be the first comprehensive overview of the artist’s work and an opportunity to re-evaluate his achievement as a photographer. During his life, Brake became our most internationally renowned photographer so it is probably timely to review his photography.

New Zealand – Gift of the Sea was a collaborative book project that he undertook with Maurice Shadbolt (Whitcombe & Tombs, 1963). This publication went through a significant number of revised editions and it became the most popular illustrated book ever printed about New Zealand. Gift of the Sea remains a key book in the history of our photography as it mixes up a personal vision with a promotional response to New Zealand and New Zealanders. As such, it should be studied for the perspective it presents on our post-war life. I have never considered Brake’s work to be either purely corporate or always skewed towards the needs of his commercial clients. I find his photographs quite personal in tone and, sometimes, emotional.

In my previous posting on Brian Brake I indicated that he had a rare ability to get physically close to his subjects without them appearing to notice him or modify their behaviour. In 1989, a friend of the artist gifted 18 photographs by Brake, which constitute the photo-essay Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau at a bullfight. Brake was visiting southern France with his friend John Feeney in August 1955. On a Sunday they decided to travel the short distance to Vallauris where a bullfight was being held in honour of Picasso. They came across the artist having lunch with family and friends and, apparently, the table was already surrounded with itinerant photographers.

Here are three of the afternoon's images. While he is obviously very close to the table, Brake is still utilising one of his telephoto lens – the short depth of field supports this notion. When we were first preparing to exhibit this photo-essay (presented as part of Christopher Johnstone’s exhibition Picasso – The Life – The Times – The Genius 22 September – 12 November 1989) I accessed, courtesy of Magnum Photos in Paris, all the proofsheets of Brian’s 1955 negatives. I could then analyse the photographs’ chronological sequence and their relationship with one another. Four rolls of 35mm black and white negative were used that Sunday afternoon.

In At the café – Pablo Picasso and Maia Picasso 1955, the meal is now over and Brake is not close enough to concentrate either on the artist or on Maia, his second child. Following this moment in At the café – Maia Picasso with guitar 1955 the light has increased so much that it now creates a backlight. Plus, Maia’s grimace makes the resulting image really unusable for a publication. At the café – Pablo Picasso and Claude Picasso 1955 shows how bored Claude was at lunch. The 8 year old boy wants his father’s attention and keeps moving around the table during lunch.

Brian Brake recounted what happened next and it is worth republishing for what it illuminates about the circumstances of what followed: “I joined the photographers, got a few photographs, and decided on the spur of the moment to follow them to the bullfight. The crowd went with them, up to the front doors of the arena. Picasso went in and came out again. He’d gone in the wrong gate. Everyone was after his autograph. And it didn’t seem to matter where he signed it. Anyway, we took the usual posed photographs and the other photographers went off to watch the bullfight. I decided to stay on because I wanted to catch their reactions. I remember climbing a tree to get the best vantage point. But I ran out of film. So I went to the Paris Match photographer and asked him if I could borrow a roll. I told him I was from Magnum. He looked at me and stared me in the eye and said, ‘Never.’ This was certainly an education for me. I’d come from New Zealand with no experience of photojournalism whatsoever; certainly no knowledge of the intense rivalry for a story.

I went out into the village, brought another roll of film and returned to carry on with the photographs from the same tree. Then came the moment I’d been waiting for. The climax of the fight. Picasso’s son Claude got so excited he stuck his finger in his father’s mouth. It was the last shot on my last roll of film. That was the photograph that made the pages of the magazines around the world: Life, Stern, The Times, Paris Match!”

The bullfight - Claude puts his finger in Picasso's mouth is printed full-frame – there is no cropping. Interestingly, it has become one of the two best-known portraits of the artist and his son. The other portrait, probably better known, is Robert Capa’s much earlier portrait of both people at the seaside. Claude went on to become a photographer and his memories of the time are interesting.

Image credits:

Black and white photographs
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
gifted in memory of Brian Brake
by a friend of the artist, 1989

1 comment:

Ron Brownson said...

Thinking about this further I realised that I had forgotten to mention that Brian Brake had one of the steadiest hands of any photographer I have ever known. It was partly the way he cupped his Leica in his hands and the method which he employed to hold his camera very close to his chest. With telephoto lens he never seems to have any camera shake.