1 Nov 2010

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the SFMOMA

Although I was forced to put my work to the side for a few months I have continued to pursue my interests both with my camera and my eye. Whilst in San Francisco a poster caught my attention and I took time out to visit the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to look at some work by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Cartier-Bresson (C-B) has long been considered one of the original street photographers and the father of the modern reportage style of photography that has influenced so many photographers.  As a lover of street photography I view his work with reverence so was delighted to get the chance to see some of it in the flesh.  

The exhibit was well attended despite being the middle of the week and I was delighted to be able to use my camera and sound recorder to make notes as I went around.   The work being displayed ran from some of his early work right through to the photo journalistic work that he did later in life.  I have singled out some of the prints that I saw for attention as they particularly appealed to me.

Valencia - Spain 1933

Taken in 1933 this image is of a couple of uniformed workers by a garage.  He has, in a moment, seen an opportunity to capture the head of one worker looking through a square cut in the door whilst his colleague comes through the doors looking away.  Our attention is taken by the disembodied head which looks even more strange with one eye glass opaque and yet our interest is further piqued by the open door and the other worker coming out, his attention directed into the darkness allowing us to wonder what is inside.

Not all of his work shows such spontaneity and I found a few images to be quite obviously posed with the peoples attention directed at the camera whilst they vie for attention.  These may have been images that he took for his work but they don't have the same attention grabbing quality for my taste.  One such image can be found here.

C-B was present at some momentous occasions throughout history including the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi and he took some remarkable shots of the event and the anguish shown by those present.

Brie - France 1968

This photograph taken in Brie is a wonderful landscape that in many respects follows the rules beautifully.  The road and trees are on the left 1/3 and the horizon is on the bottom 1/3 but then he does something unexpected that, for me, makes the photograph... he leads the road out of the frame to the left!  I would have placed the road to the right and led the observer into the scene and it would have been a  beautiful but conventional view.  Had I done what C-B did I have no doubt that an assessor might have looked at it askance and wondered if I knew what I was doing!  In the case of C-B he is obviously well aware of the imbalance and the way it adds a little tension and wonder as we are naturally curious as to where that road goes but not provided with an answer by the photographer.  We have to use our own imagination.

Juvisy - France 1938
Although I believe that this is probably a posed shot, the family take no interest in the photographer and are all caught in mid-action, it doesn't detract from the composition.  There is no eye contact with the camera and the position of the grouping takes us from the large gentleman in the foreground pouring his wine down the bank observing each person in turn and eventually out to the punt, moored with the fishing rods lazily dipping into the river.  I love the way that no-one is making eye contact so we are put in the place of a discrete observer of this family scene.  It is 'everyday' but the composition makes it much more than that and from a modern aspect gives us a beautiful and sentimental view of life for these people.

Paris 1953

This view of the Seine in Paris taken from a high vantage point overlooking the city is a great example of C-B's eye for the moment.  A great view of the city but made so much more by the interest we find amongst the people in the foreground.  He was so much the master of catching moments like this that it is hardly surprising I delight so much in his work.  From the courting couple in the foreground to the horseshoe of school girls in their black capes around the balustrade, all is designed to give the image great interest, a wonderful depth and to take our eyes out from the foreground into the distance.  Anyone who has ever shot a city scape needs to see this image as a lesson in how to turn a straight forward photograph into something much more special.

New York 1947

I have to be honest and admit that I don't really associate C-B with America but he first went there in 1935 to exhibit work and did some shoots for Harper's Bazaar.  He shot a documentary about war refugees for the American Office of War and about the time of this photograph he helped found Magnum Photos with other renown photographers Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger.  The photograph here that he took of a New York free-way has a surprisingly modern feel to it albeit with a tiny fraction of the cars we would now see.  For me the image is a sinuous series of lines that complement each other as they copy the line of the river bank leading up to the horizon.  He has made a conventional and contemporary (of the time) view into a very pleasing image that reflects many of the attributes we learned in our Elements of Design module.

Miami 1957

C-B had the perfect knack of summing up a place in one simple view.  This is a classic example and there is really no need for the caption as anyone who has been to Miami will recognise that the essence of the place has been truly captured.  Bright white buildings lining the ocean in stark and unforgiving sunlight.  An older man slavered in oil with skin as dark a mahogany is massaged by a pool.  A picture truly paints a thousand words.  Not only is this a thoughtfully composed shot from the point of its content, note how the walls enclosing the sunbather follow the 1/3 lines and help to direct the eye up into the shot following the left wall up into the line of the street beyond. 

Henri Matisse - France 1944

C-B was also a master of portrait photography and during his life shot many famous personalities, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Coco Chanel, Jean Paul Sartre, etc.  The image here of his friend Henri Matisse is shot only 10 years before Matisse dies.  He is suffering from an illness, recently divorced and consigned to a wheelchair.  The painter and sculptor who was nicknamed 'Wild Beast' is captured low and small in the frame wearing a turban, and surrounded by birds.  A shadow of his former self and looking a broken man, C-B has captured the essence of a man in the decline.  What is not obvious from my reproduction above is how C-B has used depth of field to bring Matisse to prominence in the photograph, despite giving him a subordinate position when compared to the open cage of doves in the foreground.

Nara - Japan 1965

This is a photograph that reflects some of my own efforts to find patterns and interest in unlikely places.  Shot in Japan near the old capital city of Nara, this is a simple image of swirling water in a ditch, probably at the side of a padi field. I find it delightful that C-B saw the opportunity for a meaningful image in something that many would walk by without a second glance.

 BBC 1967

 As comfortable in an interior setting as outside, C-B never used flash photography.  He was also renown for composing his photographs completely in the view finder and never allowing cropping or recomposing when printing to the point of often showing the edges of the negatives when making prints.  Despite this he was quite capable of moving with the times and taking shots of, what was then considered, state of the art technology.
 Berlin Wall 1962
This moment of observation is a classic C-B moment.  Without knowing any better, I do wonder how he was able to be in the right place at the right time so often in his life.  The balance of this image with the one legged veteran of the war, the guard, the lamp post and the guard hut all working together to create the narrative of the photograph seem an impossible fluke of street photography.  Yet for C-B these moments seemed to follow him around.  No wonder he called his classic book of photographs 'The Decisive Moment'.

"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject"
Henri Cartier-Bresson


  1. Good to see you back Nick, hope you are well :)

  2. Thanks Janet. It has taken me some time to get going again, especially after Brian decided to leave the course. I have wondered at my motivation but finally decided that I should try to get the most out of the course for my own benefit. I haven't stopped photography but just been working in a different direction. Now it is time to get myself orientated back to study.