Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Illusion of the Moment - Cartier-Bresson's Conceit

Henri Cartier-Bresson [1908-2004] is the progenitor, and perhaps the ultimate personification of the photo-journalist in the 20th Century. Starting relatively late in life--following a period during which he flirted with painting, and later was seduced by the ideas of the French Surrealists--he roomed for a time with Robert Capa, and quickly became obsessed with the idea of capturing the frames of history-in-the-making, and he restlessly roamed the world with his neat little Leica 35 millimeter camera, concentrating on busy scenes of action, intersections, little human dramas, moments--as he would later (famously) be remembered for saying--in which the photographer might steal images from eternity. Another French photographer, Jacques Henri Lartigue [1894-1986], had shown, very early in the history of the medium, how action shots and candid (unposed) compositions and subjects could be as interesting as fixed, painterly arrangements. This "accidental" quality could be used to depict energetic gestures, odd, inexplicable juxtapositions, ironic contrasts, exotic details. 

The candid, elusive moment of action or sudden gesture--passing quickly into oblivion--never to be retrieved--tantalized serious photojournalists, who hunted subject-matter, poised like gunslingers ready to pull the trigger at just the precise moment of meaningful action. Few worked as hard or as determinedly as Cartier-Bresson to seize such opportunities. Rather than the contemplative, staged canvases of large format photographers, the avatars of the new, portable cameras celebrated their facility to make innumerable frames by piling up hundreds, thousands of rolls of exposed film, hardly realizing, usually, what they might have caught in their pictures, until they developed the film, later, in the darkroom.   

This procedure, in which thousands of images were built up to make a kind of cross-section file of a given session, enabled photographers to choose from among multiple views of a single situation. Rather than carefully framing a composition on the ground glass, photographers could review a host of images, choosing the best, and carefully cropping the individual images to heighten the effect--to, in effect, "compose" the picture after the fact.
One of the drawbacks of using small cameras, and high speed film, is the sacrifice of clarity and mid-range tones. Typically, 35 millimeter frames made from Tri-X high speed emulsion, pushed to absurd limits (setting as high as 2400 speed!) were all chalk and soot, with no subtlety or range. Pioneers of the medium usually figured out ways to overcome this limitation, but frequently their best images are a little rough, lacking depth of field, or sharpness (acuity). 

The spirit of the new candid approach to image-making brought qualities not seen before: Humor, vicarious intrusion (and embarrassment), surprise, accident and jeopardy--in short, all the things which occur in life, but happen so unexpectedly or precipitously that there's hardly time to notice them, much less photograph them. This was the gambit of photojournalism, and the excitement and awe it inspired fascinated readers, viewers and gallery-goers for over half a century, and fueled the picture-magazine genre (Life, Look etc.) for decades. 

The portability and lightness of the small cameras also made possible a liberating freedom of viewpoint, vantage, allowing photographers to enter intimately into scenes and situations where they could never have ventured before. 

Viewers understood that all this candid drama was unscripted, which lent a certain vigor and vitality to the gambit. As the consciousness of the relationship between artist and subject developed, people began to play to the lens, opening a third dimension to the "secret" witnessing of the photo-journalist's presence. But from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the casual, unplanned spontaneity continued to be a valued aspect of the medium.

The theft of the dramatic instance/instant from time/history is like a scalp taken in the heat of battle. Gotcha! exclaims the shutter as it clicks, quicker than an eye can blink. Cartier-Bresson's masterpiece, the collection entitled The Decisive Moment [Simon & Schuster, 1952], with its luscious cover designed by Matisse, gathers 126 of his most successful images. Late in his long life, the photographer said this: "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative." This is the decisive moment.


J said...

Can almost hear the gypsy-accordion, man.

C'est le Guerre!

Unknown said...

"Rather than carefully framing a composition on the ground glass, photographers could review a host of images, choosing the best, and carefully cropping the individual images to heighten the effect--to, in effect, "compose" the picture after the fact."

This may be true for many 35-mm photographers, but Cartier-Bresson was, famously, an insistent advocate of full-frame printing. "Our only moment of creation is that 1/125th of a second when the shutter clicks, the signal is given, and motion is stopped..." His attitude was largely shared by the other greats of the medium, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander. While it's true that the finished photograph may not be "seen" until a contact sheet is printed ("I photograph to see what things look like when photographed," Winogrand said), there's supposed to be a discipline of fidelity to the instinct of the moment.

Which isn't to say there aren't exceptions. The puddle-jumper is one. And it's true, Winogrand left behind garbage bags full of undeveloped film...

Curtis Faville said...

Unless I'm terribly mistaken, Cartier-Bresson was an insistent "cropper"--seldom restricting himself to the frame he started with.

In the end, there's nothing technically, or aesthetically "wrong" with this. How is "framing" "after the fact" different from framing in the ground glass. It's just a matter of how and when it's done. Large format cameras don't allow the candid exploitation of small, quick ones. It's just a more methodical process.

I'm not, by the way, a big fan of Frank. I often think: Is this the best he could do? Nearly all of his work seems sloppy, and dreary. William Klein did it much better, I think--his images filled with energy, action, full-frame expansion.

Kirby Olson said...

I like your posts on photography. It's not an area I think about, but I think you're right: Frank stinks, and Cartier-Bresson has precision and delicacy and drama.

Ginsberg is a pretty good photographer by the way. Did you ever see the picture of Corso looking up at Jesus on the cover of my Corso book?

Ginsberg took very good photographs. I think he's a great photographer at times.

His poetry started to peter out toward the end, but his photographs are scintillating, and surprising.

I don't like your posts on movies for the most part (the movies seem dreary that you like, and very icky and seventies), but your posts on photography are just excellent: timeless.

Unknown said...


Yeah, you are mistaken about Cartier-Bresson. At least in his interviews and published statements, he was, as I said, an insistent advocate of the full-frame. Not necessarily because anything else was "wrong," but because that was the rule he followed and it kept him sharp on the ground.

There's a nice story Joel Meyerowitz tells about seeing C-B photographing in New York: darting and leaping like a ballet dancer. I suspect that developing and printing and making the object were less interesting for him. Photography was a way of being in the world.

I'd disagree, vehemently, about Frank. He remarked, regarding C-B, "He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition." What you see as "sloppy" and "dreary" I see as an aesthetic choice on Frank's part, not a technical failing.

Klein's fun, too. I agree with you there. But I wouldn't say "better." He looked with different eyes, and saw different things. Personally, I like having all these guys around.

Curtis Faville said...


I'd heard several people rant about Cartier-Bresson's "unethical" cropping over the years. Perhaps this was a major misconception. Then again, perhaps C-B was not being altogether truthful--who's to say?

I realize that Frank's aesthetic is to make things seem as dreary as possible, but I don't think that makes the experience of viewing them any more enjoyable. Burtynski, for instance, photographs many very hideous things, but in a completely different way. There are dozens of examples.

I just come away from Frank's images thinking of the world as a dreary, drab place, unrelieved by any joy or awe. Who would want to see the world this way? And I don't buy the argument that he's somehow being more "truthful" to lived experience. If that's his experience, he needs a new pair of shoes.

Ian Keenan said...

Cartier-Bresson frequently says he never crops.. I am inclined to take him for his word.

J said...

I find it interesting, that you, Mr Faville, like Silliman, routinely approve of Kirby O's rightist-zionist rants, and then block my comments and jh's as well.

Speaking of serving zionist poetics, Cartier Bresson's advertiser-images will suffice for that...

Curtis Faville said...


I've never blocked a comment of yours, to my knowledge.

My feelings about Israel are very complex, so much so, in fact, that I doubt I'd ever venture to comment on the situation on my blog, for fear of over-simplifying the issues.

Ron and I are different people. We have no connections on the internet except what you see. Treat us separately, please.

J said...

OK. It was done inadvertently then--lo siento.

I'm not down with rabid anti-semitism ala Pound, either--yet there are more than a few reasons, good reasons, for objecting to the AIPAC-i-zation of American politics, and the USA's pro-israeli at any cost perspective--and I believe the American literary business tends to be... AIPACish as well

Tinker Greene said...

i object to the whole drift of this characterization. its dismissive tone is misleading in regard to the workings of artistic small camera photography.

full-frame editing was integral to CB's method and accomplishment. to say that "the avatars of the new, portable cameras....pil[ed] up hundreds, thousands of rolls of exposed film, hardly realizing, usually, what they might have caught in their pictures, until they developed the film, later, in the darkroom....thousands of images were built up to make a kind of cross-section file of a given session, enabl[ing] photographers to choose from among multiple views of a single situation..." is not something that one with experience taking pictures aspiring to CB's quality would be likely to say, though it may describe the procedures of some with purely journalistic intent. good pictures spring into the camera almost as if fully formed; they are the product of intensely focussed split-second intuition. looking at contact sheets you can see when a photographer was "hot." you might shoot a lot to keep up a necessary rapid-fire rhythm, but you can't just shoot blindly and hope to get something by accident. the final CB quote about the decisive moment is accurate; what leads up to it seems off-base.

Curtis Faville said...


Traditionally, the advantages of the small format have been portability, ease of exposure, and rapid composition. Those are formal distinctions between kinds of format. Cartier-Bresson was among the first photographers to exploit those advantages. The film was very cheap, and it was possible to "snap" with a freedom and ease that encouraged multiple images. Small format professionals might sit and wait and wait for the right moment, but they might also snap and snap as a scene unfolded, not knowing at any point whether this or that image would turn out to be the best. I would certainly not suggest that anyone--certainly not CB--would "shoot blindly" in the hope of getting "something by accident." What you do is shoot freely, and then check your contact sheets. It's a completely different kind of approach for the older large format "contemplative" manner.

The whole photo-journalist function is to move about freely in the world, capturing multiple situations, views, opportunities, not setting up and laboring over a few choice scenes. There's a trade-off: Rapid fire exposures accommodate the rapid unfolding of event, but they also can produce haphazard misfires and accidents. Someone moves into the frame from the left, just at the moment of exposure: The large format photographer is stuck with this error, but the 35 mm man can click again and again. The small format image will never be as elegant and composed and clear as the images the large format equipment can make, but that isn't its strength, nor its value.

There's nothing dismissive about my post.

kabza julian said...

THE advantage of a small format camera (in the hands of H C-B. in particular) is the camera size and the ability of the user to conceal the fact that they are there to take. To finish discussion of the relation of the prints (the more recent prints) and their borders versus the edges of the negative from which the print is derived one goes to the person who printed out C-B's images, at least one of whom is still around and working with / owns a small photographic school in Paris, Speos, or Magnum, or study the negatives. It is an important question but. To a large degree the 35 format derives from film and the high availability of that stock, the sensitivity and colour advancements of which also determine. C-B's style - both of shooting and editing of images owes a good deal to cinema as it precedes and leads toward Verite and New wave shooting and framing techniques. Time to address the color work Cartier-Bresson created - often set aside by those intrigued primarily with his early books and photographs in Black and White.