A photograph from a 35 mm film, shot with a normal 50 mm lens, matches up pretty well to what you think you see when you glance at a place or a room. An image printed from a bigger piece of film holds more information: you may, for example, be able to take a magnifying glass and read titles on the spines of books which would be too far away were you standing where the camera stood. Records of rooms and buildings made before miniature cameras became commonplace can have a preternatural sharpness. Thirty-five millimetre reportage, when it was a novelty, seemed to show a new world because, even though it told you less about what was out there, it was better at letting you know what it would have been like to be there. The late years of the great painters of the School of Paris, tracked down to their apartments and studios (particularly those who had, by the late 1940s and 1950s, become more a School of the Côte d'Azur), made wonderful subjects for this kind of photography when it was in its lively prime. The pictures of Matisse's rooms in the exhibition Matisse: His Art and His Textiles (at the Royal Academy until 30 May and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 23 June until 25 September), many of them by Henri Cartier-Bresson, are especially beguiling. The painters' lives were more troubled and difficult than the photographs suggest but, in the cases of Bonnard and Matisse in particular, one feels delightfully intimate with the painters and their subject-matter: these are the rooms, the models, the furniture one knows from the paintings.
LRB 19 May 2005 | PDF Download