Ant Smith


Lessons Learned: Henri Cartier-Bresson

a photo essay

Bresson's images courtesy Magnum Photos

Decisive Moments

Man leaps puddle

It is such a compelling turn of phrase, the ‘decisive moment’, that it would mean something to anybody on first hearing. It’s not important to learn some authoritative, indeed decisive, definition. It’s just important to find ways and means to frame your personal approach to the image.

The idea of the ‘decisive moment’ invites us to question ‘why now’ – what is it about this moment in time that makes it right to capture the scene now. It’s always possible to wait another moment, minute, hour, or day.  Whenever it comes, it is a fleeting thing. A fraction of a second either side and the shot is lost. Try capturing any decisive moment at random with a high-speed motordrive and you will, almost inevitably, find that the ideal shot is lost somewhere between frames. Possibly this decisive moment is the most powerful differentiator between the photograph and the snapshot. Capturing such moments almost guarantees a strong sense of narrative – lends the story to the image.

In Behind Saint-Lazzare, Paris, France, 1932 Cartier-Bresson reveals a slice of humanity simultaneously in the small and the grand scale. The station buildings, the wrought fencing, the casual debris, the workmen – all portraying a world of industry; the force of will that man exerts over the elements. The flood plain representing those ever encroaching elements. A grand story for sure. If the picture had been taken just so, it would have given up a perfectly fine tale. The addition of the foreground figure, running along the broken ladder and leaping as far as possible brings this grand story to us in intimate close up. The leaper will not clear the expanse of water and will get wet feet – but the effort, in the setting, is gargantuan. In the end result, the small and the large stories resonate and all of mankind’s efforts are revealed in one small step, one giant leap.

Cars sewn to road during The Sultan's Elephant

It seems then this ‘decisive moment’ is some elusive, grand concept – or else some hopeless stroke of luck or given talent. Considered in isolation it seems so very, unattainable. Yet, if we return to the simpler matter of just asking ‘when is it best to trip the shutter’ we will find these moments give themselves up to us. In Sewn Cars the world and his dog was taking an intimate interest in the anomaly of cars stitched to the road. Having set-up the shot it was just a matter of watching the crowd interact with the environment, and tripping the shutter when those interactions coalesced. In this case, just as the traffic warden appeared between the cars. By setting up the scene and taking some small patience you can watch the decisive moment wend its way down the path and through the scene. You can almost see it pause for you as you trip the shutter.

You don’t have to surprise yourself to capture a surprising scene.

Human Interest

Lone cyclist, from above

Behind Saint-Lazzare is an example of how waiting for the world to go about its business can add strength and resonance to an already fine composition. In just the same way, Cartier-Bresson has a fine, strong composition in The Var Department, Hyères, France, 1932. The interplay of the towering verticals, the irregular spiral of the stairway, and the sweeping arc of the street gives a geometric composition filled with motion like a whirlpool in a tank. Add to this the blurred figure of the cyclist (almost out of the frame already) and again the image is lifted to a resonating dual-sided story. Where’s this rider off at such a speed? And what other tales have the venerable stones of this little nook witnessed over the years? What more will be witnessed in the years to come?

Certainly we imbue the image with greater significance on this side of the war than perhaps it held at the time. But it is the human figure that allows us to do that. Without the cyclist we would be much more accepting of the image as it is in itself, and less inclined to place it in a human historical context.

Man passing old building, Soho, London

There’s a vogue for ‘human interest’ it seems. Perfectly fine images are often criticised for ‘lacking human interest’, and I worry that this will lead to under-considered images, or a lack of subtlety. Human interest shouldn’t need to mean ‘human person’ – but with an infinite supply of images editors can so easily short-form and over simplify reactions to images. It still holds true though that some images are transcended by the addition of an immediate reminder of humanity. In Soho Warehouse I wanted to record an image with an over riding deep tonality. The warehouse undergoing refurbishment was ideal, just enough hint of activity through the windows and a very deep, rich tonality in the brickwork. In itself though the composition lacks any strong direction or movement and is quite unsatisfying. The blurred figure though does allow the image to transcend. Blurred enough to appear as a ghost, possibly as one of the ghosts of the building’s past. By contemplating this ghostly figure on the outside we’re invited to think about those who may have inhabited the building in the past. A composition that’s static in space suddenly becomes alive with motion in time.

Adding a human element (at a decisive moment, of course) is a very easy way to ground an otherwise large, unreachable, narrative. Brings the stories in the image up close and personal, provides us with an ‘in’ to an otherwise objective experience.

Sometimes people in your photographs can help invite the viewer into the grand story.

Missing Elements

Men peeping through canvass

It has always been possible to create ‘tricksy’ photographs. Images of things that never really existed together in one place and time – consider the Cottingley Faeries of 1917. Clearly it is so much easier, and so much more common, to construct trick images in this world of digital capture. But we are possibly working on the borders of what is photography versus imagery at this point – an important distinction for me, at least. In essence, photography differs radically from other image making forms. Painting, drawing, collage, etc… begin with nothing and end with an imagined, constructed artifice. Photography begins with the whole world, in all times, and through a series of choices – selections or exclusions – ends with an imagined, constructed artifice.

In photography selection is everything. Selection by viewpoint, perspective, distance, crop, time, place, tonality, colour, focus. It is not just a question then of what to put in the frame, there are many more degrees of freedom than that. In Brussels, Belgium, 1932 Cartier-Bresson executes a masterpiece of selection. In many ways the subject here is that which we can not see, whatever it is beyond the screen that the younger man peers through (some sporting action I believe). Because selection is so key to photography, the selection of what is not in the shot takes on a heightened interest in the right circumstances. Cartier-Bresson here creates those circumstances by placing the screen at such a pressing proximity to the camera – flooding the frame with what can’t be seen.

Desserted underground tunnel at Bank, London

In Waterloo and City I’ve selected a particular stretch of tunnel from several choices to ensure there’s a possibility of arrival. Because the tunnel twists, you can not see to the end of it, it is possible that someone is only moments from entering the frame. Even without living or working in central London it’s quite well known that Mass Rapid Transport systems the world over are sordid sweaty cramped affairs. The possibility for the arrival of people and the expectation that there would be many people give this quiet, undulating, bright scene a sense of “calm before the storm”. This scene depicts crowded city life precisely by not showing that.

Sometimes a photograph is about what isn’t there.

There’s a potential contradiction in all that has been said here. The point is though, to distil the essence of photographs that clearly ‘work’. So that a series of options, questions, possibilities arise to help frame – or just understand – new works.

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