Sunday, February 22, 2009

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Master captured the 'decisive moment'

Credit the BBC television series "The Genius of Photography" for today's post, which I hope to be the first in a periodic series of looks at "master" photographers.

"The Genius of Photography" is a series I stumbled upon by chance late last year on Ovation TV (Channel 157 on Dish satellite and Channel 274 on DIRECTV; for cable, check your local service provider's channel list).

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to record the six installments so I can revisit them. Unfortunately, while the series has aired periodically on Ovation TV since its BBC debut in October 2007 and aired most recently this past December and January, I cannot find any indication at Ovation TV's Web site that it will re-run anytime soon. The Luminous Landscape Forum provides a handy description of all six installments.

According to the BBC series, Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the world's first known photojournalists and was instrumental in developing the style of "street photography" that many photographers today enjoy.

Cartier-Bresson, who himself preferred to shun the camera (the accompanying portrait is a rarity), was known for capturing so many of his photographic subjects at their so-called "decisive moment" -- the dramatic climax of a picture at which everything falls perfectly into place. Appropriately enough, "The Decisive Moment" was the title of the English version of his 1952 book of images taken during his many travels.

I lifted and compiled the following from several biographical synopses I found on the Internet:

Cartier-Bresson's passion for photography evolved from his love, at a very young age, of motion pictures and how they captured "real life." For an outlet, he first turned to painting. But he wasn't capturing the vision he wanted with paint and often would toss out his work.

Then one day he became inspired by a 1930 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. He was struck by how the image captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive. "I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera," he said.

The photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant." He acquired a Leica camera with a 50 millimeter lens (pictured above) in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye.

The BBC series installment featuring Cartier-Bresson spent considerable time on a single photograph, titled Behind the Gare St. Lazare The image depicts a man caught in mid-air leaping over a puddle –- the so-called "decisive moment" –- at the Gare St. Lazare train station in Paris. The image may appear to most people as pretty simple, but to photographers, it is the equivalent of a Picasso or Rembrandt; prints of the image cannot be acquired for less than five figure sums.

Said Cartier-Besson of that picture: "There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped."

Behind the Gare St. Lazare, taken in 1932, shows the leaper blurred because of motion. It's not raining in the photo, but it's obvious it has rained recently due to the reflective puddle the man is trying to hurdle. There is evidence of renovation going on -- the pile of rocks and the wheelbarrow in the background and the ladder and metal rings lying in the foreground. In the background, a man stands by the gate looking away from the camera but toward the train station, and beside him are several posters on the fence. One of those posters presents an interesting juxtaposition and a balancing element in the image.

The circus-promotion poster shows a leaping dancer, almost parroting the puddle-jumping subject in the foreground, and the less obvious leaping of the clock hand seen faintly above.

As for his photojournalism, Wikipedia's entry for Cartier-Bresson chronicles the following:

Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948 and the last (1949) stage of the Chinese Civil War. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic.

He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing, as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he went on to Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where he documented the gaining of independence from the Dutch.

In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book "Images à la sauvette," whose English edition was titled "The Decisive Moment." It included a portfolio of 126 of his photos from the East and the West. The book's cover was drawn by well-known French painter Henri Matisse.

Cartier-Bresson died on Aug. 3, 2004, at the age of 95.

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