Sunday, May 2, 2010

On having a good eye

Photography before the 1920s and 30s was primarily big cameras on tripods making staged photos. Photographers opened studios, had the subjects sit or stand in a certain manner, and with a click of the flash, voilĂ ! But this kind of "manufactured" photography did not concern Henri Cartier-Bresson. Rather than arranging the image beforehand, he went out to discover and seize it. He prowled the streets all day with his Leica 35mm camera in his hand, capturing and framing moments of life with his unique sensibility. A good example is Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932. Here, the reflective still water, the ladder, the ripples, and the leaping man were caught right before the man's heel touched the water. Cartier-Bresson managed to freeze action at this particular moment of tension. It makes the anticipation for the ripples around the man rather uncanny.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris. 1932

He didn't just stop at visual forms. The capacity of hand-held camera as a recorder of everyday life gave photography the potential of being an instrument of storytelling. In the late 1930s, Cartier-Bresson started to explore deeper meanings behind photographic expressions. He engaged himself in the rapid changing postwar world, developing the narrative dimension of images with his photo-essays. This new "real life reportage" style earned him the recognition as the father of modern photojournalism.

Photo-Essay: The Great Leap Forward, China. 1958

The subjects of Cartier-Bresson's photos are usually average people. Even when he covered the coronation of King George VI in 1937, he focused on the Londoners on the street and took no pictures of the new king. Through the lens of Cartier-Bresson, these people (individuals, small groups, or big crowds) and their intense emotions (joy, agony, love, or hatred) reveal the significance of the events. The reunion of a mother and son who had been separated throughout the war, the mourning crowd trying to get a hold on the train carrying Gandhi's ashes, the first time when some Chinese kids watched TV, and the enthusiastic young man trying out a new car in Paris... are all examples of meaningful snapshots. The images transcend the specificity of these people and act on a metaphorical level as illustrations of history.

New York. 1946

Train Carrying Gandhi's Ashes Leaves Delhi. 1948

The Great Leap Forward, China. 1958
These youngsters are seeing television for the first time.

Automobile Show, Paris. 1968

Cartier-Bresson certainly had an eagle eye to pick up the telling moments. Snapshots require a spontaneous instant when question and decision happen almost at the same time. For Cartier-Bresson, "Photography is simultaneously and within a fraction of a second the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact." This quick reaction to unexpected events doesn't come from nowhere. He involved himself in the situation, observed closely, and tried to understand the intricate relationships between human beings. As Cartier-Bresson said, "It is putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis." In order to see, you have to feel, to think, and you can't be ignorant.

This handsome Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at MoMA reminds me of another photography show I saw at the Met last year: "Robert Frank's The Americans" on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. This acclaimed photo album includes 83 photos that Frank took on several road trips in the US during 1955-56. The two European photographers, Cartier-Bresson and Frank, saw almost eye to eye on the themes about America around the 1950s: vulgarity, greed, class, and racism. Frank also used the method of street photography, similar to Cartier-Bresson's, to explore these themes. In Charleston, we see a middle-aged African American woman holding a baby with skin so pale that it looks almost out of place. In New Orleans, passengers on a trolley were seated in the social order that prevailed in a pre-civil-rights, pre-feminist, pre-youth-culture nation. The way Frank caught this moment is quite interesting. He was there shooting a parade. Then with an accidental swing of the camera, he saw the trolley from the viewfinder. He was in the right place at the right time. More importantly, he had the right knowledge and attitude to couple with intuitions and reflexes. Like Cartier-Bresson, Frank has a good eye that is aligned with his head and his heart. The camera is simultaneously a feeling and a thinking device, a sensor and a processor.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. New York. 1947

Robert Frank. Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office - Butte, Montana. 1956

Henri Cartier-Bresson. New York. 1959

Robert Frank. Charleston, South Carolina. 1955

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Nashville, Tennesee. 1961
An African-American student is denied entry to a theater. He keeps his hands in his pockets to demonstrate that his protest is nonviolent.

Robert Frank. Trolley - New Orleans. 1955

Yehuda said, "Intuition without knowledge is blind." That's so true. In my book, there is no such thing as an "ignorant genius." Being clueless and impulsive at the same time can only lead to ridiculous arbitrariness.

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