Henri Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment on the Run

In a recent article, Agnes Sire, the Director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed the legendary photographer – by most collectors and enthusiasts of photography simply referred to as HCB – setting out to explain some of the magic that has surrounded the photographer for more than three quarters of a century.  Here is my contribution:

In HCB’s seminal book, in English called “The Decisive Moment” and in French “Images à la Sauvette” (1952), HCB assembled a selection of his photographs of various subjects, in a novel style that was made possible by a small, nimble hand-held camera, in the hands of a master, who had a great eye and a classical background in composition.  The book has come to be, perhaps, the most important book ever published in the field of photography.

The HCB paradox, in my mind is one of reconciling the idea behind the two titles of his book.  In English The Decisive Moment, in French translated into English Images on the Run.  Arguably HCB did both, he found the exact moment to take a photograph. He did so with great composition and great command of light and shadow.  However, the concept of the decisive moment is based on perfect composition and perfect content, but to make a photograph at the decisive moment, you have to wait for the decisive moment.  You have to be patient.  You compose your image in the view-finder, you set the graphic elements and ensure that the light and shadow elements will work in the final black and white print, and then you wait.  You wait for the right element to enter the photograph, usually this is people, a dog, a car or another moving object and you press the shutter when the moving element is in the perfect position in the composition you have prepared for it.  This is the Decisive Moment. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Hyères

A good example is the bicycle rider in the 1932 image from Hyères in the south of France.  The graphic elements of the staircase, the position of the photographer above the subject, and the stairs, walls and building all round, create the perfect setting.  The perfect light and shadow elements form the perfect frame for the lone bicycle rider that comes along the cobble stones on the road below. 

Images on the Run, on the other hand, suggests that you lift the camera, compose the image on the fly and capture the moving elements perfectly within the field of the viewfinder.  All in a fraction of a second.  This requires not only incredible luck and intuition when it comes to the compositional, or graphic elements, but also the moving elements have to be just perfect.  While I would argue that this happens, it does not happen often, and certainly not every time.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre

A prime example of this would be HCB’s Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre, which captures the jumping figure and his reflection in the standing, perfectly still water, with a poster in the background of a circus artist in a strikingly similar position as the jumper in the foreground.  There would have been only a second or two to anticipate this shot and certainly no time to prepare.  Lucky?  Perhaps, but it still takes a great eye to make this come together.

The contradiction in these two photographs is that in the first, the one from Hyères, it is 99% sure that the composition was created, and the shutter pushed down only when the bicycle appeared below.  Arguably, HCB might have seen a bicycle come across the field, followed by him setting up the shot and waiting for the next bicycle, however, unlike the Saint Lazarre image, where HCB could see in advance that the figure was going to come across the boards and would perhaps jump, giving him time to raise the camera and press the shutter at the perfect moment, the shot with the bicycle could not be anticipated, as the bicycle  would have come from behind the building to the right at some speed, and there simply would not have been time to even raise the camera.

This interpretation of the two book titles, perhaps illustrated with the two examples above, creates part of the mystique around HCB.  He nursed this mystique.  It is said that he buried a small box of negatives – individual negatives cut from whole rolls – in his garden before the outbreak of World War II.  The mystique is augmented, as some of these negatives are among his most celebrated.  They date from the 1920s and 30s and are in many cases iconic.  However, in saving individual negatives only, as opposed to entire rolls of film, you cannot see, if he took 30 photographs to get the one with the bicycle…. Perhaps there was one with a pedestrian, one with a pram, one with a car, and so forth, and he selected the one with the bicycle.  There is no way of knowing how the decisive moment was achieved.  How many shots it took before the  bicycle came along.  It is more than likely that there would have been several photographs from the same spot before the bicycle came along.  We will never know, and I am convinced that HCB liked it that way.  The box of individual negatives contributed greatly to the legend that he became and cemented in his followers his incredible ability to compose every frame perfectly every time.  We will never know how many photographs of the same scene would have appeared over and over again with variations in the key moving elements, until the right one came along and the decisive moment occurred.

Why is this important you ask?  Well, I think the majority of HCB’s iconic images are actually very carefully composed frames with moving elements captured just at the right time.  As opposed to simply lifting the camera at the right second and by magic shooting at the same time as designing the composition within the frame, as would be the case with the ‘photographer on the run’.

This is by no means a scientific analysis of the master’s work, nor is it a critique of the man’s incredible skill and his wonderful photographs, it is my interpretation of how he nursed his own legend and at the same time suggested that compositional, framing elements were everything, but that the fraction of a second when the decisive moment happened was also everything and somehow the compositional elements came together with the moving elements in a decisive moment, in a spontaneous, not pre-planned fashion.  This is pure fabrication.  Perfect composition, lighting and the moving elements do not just come together in the 1/125th of a second that one might shoot in today, or the 1/50th of a second that HCB would have shot at in the middle of the last century.  Yes, it can happen.  Yes, experience will help with the composition elements.  But it is not something that happens over and over again and just for HCB.

I am not suggesting that HCB’s photographs are not mind-blowing and that the sheer volume of his incredible photographs are not awe-inspiring for any photographer, what I am saying is that a great number of his photographs are carefully composed in advance and taken once the moving, critical element entered the frame in exactly the right position and the shutter was pushed.  Of course, lots of HCB’s photographs are absolutely taken on the run, but often the compositional elements are not quite as strong, and the action, or the moving elements, as I call them, tend to be a little more centered in the frame, as would be natural, if you see something happening, you raise and point your camera, and press the shutter, all in a matter of a split second.

In conclusion:  HCB did both the well-composed decisive moment photographs and the images on the run photographs.  So, perhaps it is appropriate that his collection of photographs published to such great effect in 1952, in a somewhat convoluted manner had both titles.  The result is a collection of both carefully composed images, where behind the scenes, an entire roll might have been committed to get just the right moving element, and images that were a result of a split second decision to shoot, where a roll might actually contain 36 completely different photographs.

HCB was superb at supporting his own legend, and had a reputation for harshly critiquing mentees who broke his rules for strict composition and perfect timing for the moving elements.  He was a great photographer, but the legend that all his photographs were split-second decisions, where he just happened to be exactly in the right place, in the exact right position, in the 1/50th of a second where the whole thing came together in his view-finder just so, is entirely the stuff of legend and a carefully nurtured legend at that, which HCB seems to have enjoyed thoroughly.  His writings, his quotations, his legendary privacy, hatred of having his picture taken, all have fed the reputation and formed the iconic legacy that he enjoyed during his lifetime, and beyond.

One of his more famous quotes reads:

“For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry – it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.

 This is the stuff of legend, and for the average photographer the kind of stuff that makes the knees knock and the hands shake.  And while it can certainly happen, it is the exception rather than the rule, because as a rule with HCB, composition came first, and more often than not, the moving elements were the result of patience and multiple efforts before achieving the final result.  The quote is revisionist, and designed to further fuel the legend.

It doesn’t diminish the value or the incredible number of magnificent photographs that the master produced during his long career, but it does make him human.  At least a little more human than the legend might otherwise suggest.

Harbel             

The Photograph versus other Fine Art – Everyone is a Critic

A few years ago, I was sitting on a plane en route to Madrid. I was reading what was then the International Herald Tribune. I tore out a review of a photography exhibition taking place at the time. I have had this review burning a hole in my desk drawer and it is time to discuss! Obviously, the review was written by an art critic that was not an expert on photography, as you will see from the quote below:

“The issue of whether photography can be art is an old one that dates back to the origins of the activity itself. Ever since the pictorialist photographers of the 1870s attempted to compete with painters, borrowing from their compositions and subject matter, photographers have never ceased measuring their own work against that of plastic artists. They have come up with chemical and lighting tricks, they have used collage and montages, superpositions and hybrids….”, etc., etc.

It is quite clear that some critics until this day consider the plastic arts — that would be your painting, sculpture, and so forth — far superior. To them photography is beneath them and more of a craft or a technical skill. This may be in part because not all university art history degrees incorporate photography? Mine did, but you could easily have avoided photography all together, as all the photography courses were electives and the introductory Art History courses mentioned virtually no photography or photographers at all. As such, the critic above is not equipped to have an opinion, other than one based in personal taste, rather than foundational knowledge (it is common knowledge, and generally agreed, among photography art historians that Pictorialist photography did not start until 1885 or 1889, and was very dead by 1920).

But, all this aside, what is it that makes the critic frown upon the photographer and his work? Is it because it involves mechanical equipment? The chemicals in the processing? The ability to make multiple images? Each of these activities can be found in a number of the plastic arts, yet that does not seem to matter. A sculptor’s foundry, a painter’s lithographs, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, all have some form of tool kit, along with a base material, be it stone, metal, canvas or paper. So why is photography treated differently?

Perhaps the best thing is to ignore the critics all together. Or listen to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who said: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

The Trouble at Magnum Photos, Manipulated Digital Photographs, and New Investors

• Last year the famous photographer Steve McCurry was caught having digitally manipulated a number of his photographs. He blamed his ‘team’ (Petapixel.com, May 6th, 2016). But what about his other family, his Magnum family?

• Only a few weeks ago, Peter Vik announced he was leaving Magnum Photos, because he refused to sign a new contract with an outside investment group. He left Magnum to protect his freedom, as a photographer (British Journal of Photography, June 15th, 2017).

These two news items may have nothing in common at first glance, but they may be symptomatic of trouble at Magnum Photos and perhaps a warning of things to come.

I have for many, many years been a strong supporter of the legacy that has led Magnum Photos to be a place for photographic independence, where photographers retain control of their photographs, sold for single use only to media far and wide.

When the founders of Magnum came up with the single use policy, it laid the foundation for the livelihoods of many of the best photographers of the past 70 years. The price for this success was of course a certain set of iron-fisted leaders that forced photography in a particular direction.

One of the early drivers was Henri Cartier Bresson (HCB). A fiercely independent photographer, who with a substantial family fortune behind him could afford to be selective in his assignments, and who as luck would have it with his first self-assigned project for Magnum Photos struck gold. HCB was in India to photograph Gandhi. As it happened, this was the day before Gandhi was murdered. HCB went on to cover the funeral leaving the world with some very iconic photographs that were sold to newspapers and magazines far and wide. In some ways, this single assignment cemented the name of Magnum Photos and made it what it has been for the past seven decades.

HCB was the backbone of Magnum Photos for many, many years. He worked hard at critiquing and schooling superb young photographers like Marc Riboud until he was satisfied that they had mastered the HCB esthetic. Shooting in his image, one might say. But strong personalities have their own challenges.

When Kryn Taconis an early Dutch member of Magnum came to Paris after having returned from Algeria, where he had been photographing on the side of independence (and therefore against the French, in the eyes of HCB), Magnum Photos on the specific orders of HCB refused to circulate his photographs through their usual channels, effectively muzzling Taconis. Taconis soon left the collective.

I met Kryn Taconis’ widow a few years ago, around 2002, I think. By then she was in her 90s. She showed me a photograph by HCB. A modest size print of Kashmir, from 1947. The inscribed photograph was HCB’s gesture of contrition for having effectively censored Kryn Taconis out of Magnum. He had come to visit, in person, admitting he was wrong to block Taconis’ work, by letting his own personal politics get in the way. He was a dollar short and a couple of decades late. Kryn Taconis had passed away in 1979.

In modern times, when Steve McCurry was found to have manipulated his photographs to perfection, he blamed his ‘team’. McCurry made a lame argument that he was not shooting on assignment, and had not supervised sufficiently, etc. Had there been only one of these manipulated photographs, it might have been OK. Write it off to assistant enthusiasm, perhaps? But there are several internet-sleuths, who have uncovered further examples by simply comparing photographs by McCurry that are in circulation on the web. Does this taint all of McCurry’s work?  You decide….

The final product

The original image

Reuters and AP and several other agencies, including National Geographic, all seem to endorse and enforce a code of conduct: Mr. Gerry Hershorn, who until 2014 was Photo Editor for Reuters, put it this way: “Well, there are … some very accepted practices. If you take a picture and somebody’s skin tone is purple by mistake, it’s very common for a photographer to bring the skin tone back to a proper skin tone color. A photographer is never allowed to change content. You can’t add information, you can’t take away things.”

Not long ago, AP severed all ties to Narciso Contreras. He had digitally removed another photographer’s camera from one of his photographs, taken in Syria. AP acted swiftly and scrubbed their website of all Contreras photographs. Santiago Lyon, VP and Director of Photography said in a statement: “AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code. Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable.”

Don McCullin, one of the last greats of photojournalism – and not a member of Magnum – put it this way: “Digital manipulation of photographs is ‘hideous’ and has left photographers able to ‘lie’ to the public by doctoring images. Pictures have been ‘hijacked’ by digital, with old-fashioned skills of the dark room eclipsed by computer generated colour.”

When it comes to Steve McCurry, Magnum Photos has chosen to remain virtually silent.

It seems that when the big names in photography make mistakes, like HCB with his politics, or Steve McCurry with his digitally perfected colour photographs, there are different rules. HCB may be dead, but I do not think he would be happy about Magnum Photos taking on outside investors, and starting to lose control of the collective he founded. Likewise, had he been alive, I am pretty sure he would have asked Steve McCurry to leave Magnum Photos.

But, if Steve McCurry were asked to leave Magnum Photos, what would the new investors say? What would losing a revenue stream from work by what used to be one of the great photojournalists of his time? This may explain the silence from a usually outspoken Martin Parr, who just stepped down as President of Magnum.

For all its faults, Magnum Photos may be the last refuge for some of the best photographers in the world, who might otherwise have had to shoot weddings and corporate annual reports to survive. In a world where a cell phone video by an anonymous witness, has replaced professional photojournalism in most media outlets, it is tough to be a photojournalist.

I worry…. If books are anything to go by, Magnum Photos is doing everything it can to invent new revenue streams. There is a TV series in development, and I understand that there are discussions about how best to leverage the brand. With the new investors in place, who will be looking for a return on their investment, can coasters and coffee mugs be far behind? AND in refusing to tackle the McCurry issue, has Magnum opened the door to doubt about authenticity, and legitimacy of itself, and its collective of great photographers?

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

Images are borrowed from the web and are attributed to Steve McCurry, and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.