In 1865, the eminent American journalist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture called “Pictures and Progress”, in which he discussed the role of photography in exposing the evils of racism and slavery. Referring to Louis Daguerre, he pointed out that “men of all conditions and classes can now see themselves as others see them, and as they will be seen by those who come after them,” and that “man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”
Douglass’s words may be applied to both the photographers discussed here, Marjorie Doggett and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose collections of photographs demonstrate their “passion for pictures” and their ability to capture and freeze moments in time for future generations to study and enjoy, perhaps even find themselves transported to another place and another time. Coming generations will certainly owe them a debt of thanks, Doggett for preserving much of the best of Singapore’s past as revealed by its buildings as they appeared in the 1950s, and Cartier-Bresson because he witnessed and recorded a pivotal, dramatic moment in China’s history and significantly helped to shape the West’s view of China. Both photographers, in their own ways, deserve the epithet of “great discoverer” and merit the “special homage” Douglass awarded to Daguerre.
Marjorie Doggett (1921-2010) is, of course, much less well-known than her slightly older contemporary Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), as her photographic interests were not connected to journalism, and are more narrowly focussed. Her passions were for the older colonial buildings of Singapore, which she feared might soon disappear because of increased modernization, and for the welfare of animals, some of whom (usually cats) make an appearance in her photographs. Doggett also photographed her own family and recorded its activities in Singapore and on their travels, an intimate touch which we don’t see in Cartier-Bresson’s book, because his concern is, of course, not with his own immediate environment but with the unfolding of Chinese history and, above all, the ordinary people who made it and were caught up in it, with whom he had a great deal of empathy. It is the photographs of architecture which highlight Doggett’s passion for preserving Singapore’s past through its architecture, and those of people in the midst of change and uncertainty which motivate Cartier-Bresson to take some of best-known photographs of China in his generation.
Marjorie Millest first arrived in Singapore with her fiancé Victor Doggett in 1947, and after their marriage they settled there for life, taking citizenship in 1961. Victor, an ex-serviceman, became a music teacher and started his own studio. Marjorie published her first book of photographs, Characters of Light, in 1957 (republished 1985), which featured Singapore’s architectural heritage, during a time when the city was in dire straits, an era of homelessness, mass unemployment and poverty.
As Lily Kong notes in her preface, the government’s focus was not on heritage buildings and conservation, and Doggett’s book attracted little attention until its second printing. This was due to an upsurge in urban renewal policies which involved demolition and rebuilding; Doggett’s book gave a reason for some of those involved in these activities to pause and consider what they were doing. Did “progress” have to necessarily involve the destruction of the physical past? These questions were even more important when the political, cultural and social environment of Singapore in the later 1950s is taken into account; Doggett was working during a transition, with Singapore slowly but surely moving towards its modern, independent city-state manifestation. As this went forward, now schemes for urbanization and expansion inevitably developed, and residents like Doggett found themselves looking for ways to ensure that the past remained an integral part of Singapore’s progress. “We should not tear down historic buildings and monuments quickly in order to put up some new brick or mortar building,” declared Ong Tiang Wee, the President of the Friends of Singapore, a group of prominent people who wanted to preserve Singapore’s history and culture. Curiously, Marjorie Doggett was not a member, although she expressed sympathy with their aims.
Most of the photographs reproduced in this large format volume are, as one would expect, of the buildings of Singapore rather than its people, in stark contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s work in China, which almost exclusively features people at close quarters and their activities. Doggett is not much concerned with depicting the inhabitants of contemporary Singapore, although of course they appear in the few street scenes. It’s the buildings and what they represented which overwhelmingly attracted the attention of her lens, “to create a photographic narrative of the urban landscape,” as Edward Stokes, an Australian photographer who has also written about Hong Kong, points out in his very informative, sympathetic introduction, and in Doggett’s own words, “I do hope that the succeeding pages [Characters of Light] will convey something of the pleasure, and nostalgia too, which I have found in their compilation, and will evoke a faint echo of the life and times of old Singapore.” They certainly do this, and some of the buildings are magnificent; Telephone House, the City Hall, Shell House and the Supreme Court are all fine examples of British colonial architecture and, of course, do much more than “evoke a faint echo.”
Because of the forceful sunshine in Singapore, Doggett was able to make skillful use of light and shade; the photograph of Shell House, for example, a white-colored building, is enhanced in its detail by the bright day and stands out against the sky, its darker windows and doorways contrasting with its balconies and ornate window-frames, some of which look almost gothic and others oriental, as if they could be the windows and doors of a mosque. The imposing Legislative Council building is another example of Doggett’s use of light and shade. How anyone could have contemplated demolition after looking at these photographs is incomprehensible! However, as Frederick Douglass observed, “The few comprehend a principle, the many require illustration.” Marjorie Doggett’s photographs amply supply the “illustration” needed to make Singapore’s urban planners pause in their rush to demolish and reinvent.
When Marjorie Doggett photographed people, however, they were usually members of her own family, often accompanied by one of the cats they loved so much or incidental to studies of places and buildings. These more intimate photographs tie in with the biographical information supplied in the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson, however, is all about people, and in particular what their faces expressed. For example, when he was sent by the French magazine Regards to record the coronation of George VI in 1937, he produced photographs of people in the crowds rather than of the king, the gilded carriages or mounted lifeguards, emphasizing the emotions of the ordinary people who had come out to celebrate their new king. Cartier-Bresson “consistently rejected anything that was standardized or prescriptive, and more precisely the principles and constraints of conventional forms of reportage.” He liked to compose directly in the viewfinder, and rarely if ever cut or edited in the darkroom.
Unlike Doggett, who carefully chose her buildings, Cartier-Bresson usually worked spontaneously, constantly striving to tell his own version or idea of a story, which was often not exactly what his employers expected of him. Cartier-Bresson was also, unlike Doggett, deeply interested in politics and, at least in the 1930s, had been a Communist sympathizer, although by the time he came to document China in 1948-49 and 1959 his views had evolved into a rather more critical attitude towards what he was seeing, and may perhaps be described as ambivalent. However, in 1954 he was in the USSR, and in 1963 visited Cuba. He wrote about the two warring factions in China, describing the Communists as “a bit strict and puritanical”, but it was the Kuomintang or Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek that he noted was “generally thought to have acted like a gangster”, and after the Communist occupation of Shanghai he described the latter as “Shanghai scoundrels”.
Politically, there was little doubt where Cartier-Bresson’s sympathies lay, and his photographs are overwhelmingly of ordinary people, although there’s one particularly telling study of Ma Hung-kwei, a successful Kuomintang general, which Cartier-Bresson took in 1948, shortly before the general was abandoned by his soldiers and forced to flee. Ma sits pensively and rather uncomfortably in his overstuffed chair, his left hand on his chin, wearing sunglasses indoors and looking as if he doesn’t really know what to do next. Behind him on the wall is displayed framed calligraphy. Contrast this with the photograph of “a simple-minded man whose function is to accompany brides on their palanquin”, with a wall of the Forbidden City in the background, also taken in 1948; the man looks happy and comfortable in his skin, no doubt completely unaware of the great events unfolding around him. Three shadows of buildings figure prominently on the left of the photograph, balancing the wall, and the scene is completed by a man walking along with his back to the photographer, also in the shade. This is not conscious symbolism—it’s simply what the photographer saw through his lens, and the viewer is left to judge or make connections.
Cartier-Bresson’s studies of crowds are perhaps his most effective and memorable photographs. Although there is no perceptible movement in these still photographs, somehow he managed to convey a sense of living, breathing dynamism, perhaps because he catches facial expressions so vividly. This is perhaps best illustrated in the justly famous “Gold Rush” photograph, made for Magnum magazine, and its background story. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang was pretty much on its last legs, so they decided to sell gold, and that meant that citizens needed to exchange their paper money. “People rushed to all the banks in the city [Shanghai] and pushed and crowded those who had got there before them,” Cartier-Bresson wrote. “Seven people died in the crushing of crowds.” He himself was surrounded by people “fumbling in my pockets”, but what really annoyed him was when “they asked me the price of my camera, computing if it was worth the trouble to steal.” It probably wasn’t, being just a plain Leica 35-millimetre camera, perhaps wrapped in black tape to conceal it better, as was his custom.
When, like Marjorie Doggett, your subject is buildings, you are standing in front of inanimate stone or brick, symbols of an ordered society, but Cartier-Bresson is right in the thick of human life being jostled and shoved around, perhaps even in some danger, and society is becoming increasingly fluid and unpredictable as he capture its movements with his lens. This is very much the immediate present, not the recent past. In “Gold Rush” men and women are crushed together so tightly that their hands are on each other’s backs, and one poor woman is so squashed up by others that only her face is visible. With his back to the camera, a man in a long coat or robe seems to be trying to exercise some control over the crowd as a woman clutches the back of his clothes. However, just behind another anxious-looking woman there’s a man with a broad grin on his face, leaving the viewer to wonder just what was so funny! The overall impression is one of nervous tension, people not knowing what is going to happen to them in the future, yet determined, because of this uncertainty, to obtain solid gold for their paper banknotes.
Cartier-Bresson did not confine himself to “political” or “social” photographs. In this book we can see everything from weddings and funerals to people practicing tai chi outside, just as they do today. There are striking studies of people at work, people eating noodles and one of a soldier buying a fountain-pen, about which Cartier-Bresson remarked that soldiers saw pens as a symbol of the successful fight against illiteracy conducted by the new Communist government; if you needed a pen, then you must know how to write or at least want to! The scope and variety of the photographs is quite amazing, to say the least; Cartier-Bresson certainly deserved all the praise heaped on his work by succeeding generations. This collection shows China in the late 1940s and 1950s raw and uncensored, alive and breathing in moments caught forever by this supreme photographic artist. As Douglass noted, “men of all conditions and classes can now see themselves as others see them.”
Both books are large-format and beautifully produced with top-quality photographic reproductions. They both have excellent introductions and commentaries packed full of biographical and historical information which adds depth and contextuality to the photographs. Frizot and Su provide a detailed time-line of Cartier-Bresson’s life in a parallel chronology with Chinese events, maps and introductory essays, all of which are invaluable to readers who may not be specialists. Doggett’s work harks back to Singapore’s days under British colonialism, symbolized by stately and imposing buildings, whilst Cartier-Bresson is the photographer of the human and dynamic, the turmoil and uncertainty of a country struggling to find its identity and ultimately looking forward to better times. As Douglass writes, picture-making is “the process by which man is able to posit his own subjective nature outside of himself … so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation,” which he believes leads to criticism, the ability to “see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavour to remove the contradiction.”