Friday, August 6, 2010

Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment – Teasing and Searing the Brain

An interesting comparison of Henri Cartier-Bresson and W.E. Smith was posted yesterday in Obit Magazine, coinciding with the HCB show presently touring the country.  Kevin Nance, the writer of the piece, describes the show as:
encompassing a protean array of work in street photography and portraiture, along with a generous selection of his globe-trotting photo essays for news magazines. It displays his strengths and reveals his weaknesses in nearly equal measure.
Agreed.  When I saw "The Modern Century" show at MoMA, on the walls there seemed to be a huge number of "weaker" photographs trotted out from the archive that perhaps could have been kept in their crates for the sake of a tighter edit.  Still, where the show did excel was showing HCB's vision as a photographer, a humanistic formula in his manner of treating subjects around the globe.  One walked out of the exhibition knowing how HCB "saw" the world, began to see those "hold-your-breath-and-wait-for-it" expectant moments, like his most famous "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris” (1932).
 Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (1932) by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Agreed, again, when Nance tries to answer the question of "Who is better – W.E. Smith or HCB?" and states that seeing the show will "obscure rather than clarify the path to a verdict."  In the case of these two photographers, there is no "greater," there is only "different."  W.E. Smith was a master at depth and emotion in the subjects of his photo essays, while HCB seemed more about a pulse and rhythm, a globalist "panoramic sweep."  The two photographers both left an indelible mark on the photographic canon.

And, I am particularly thrilled by much of the language Nance uses in his descriptions, as it is what draws me to HCB's work time and time again.
[In "Behind the Gare"] Where most other photographers would choose to show the man splashing down, Cartier-Bresson gives us something better: the moment just before the splash happens, the tantalizing promise, the potential of the event, rather than the event itself. This choice is its own brand of genius, coolly withholding, more cerebral than passionate — the genius of the artist who knows just when to stop, just where to leave us hanging, so that we can imagine the rest for ourselves.
There are scores of disconcerting, vaguely louche or downright wacky scenes here...that alternately tease and sear the brain.

After coming upon several more of these nick-of-time images — such as his second-most-famous photograph, also from 1932, of a bicyclist speeding past the bottom of a winding staircase in Hyères, France — the exhibit visitor may begin to feel that Cartier-Bresson was the most preternaturally lucky photographer who ever lived. But by understanding how to identify the impending moment and position himself to capture it, which in many cases no doubt involved considerable planning and lying-in-wait, he made his own luck. And with one great “get” after another rolled out in front of us in this exhibit, we’re forced to conclude that Cartier-Bresson had no real rival for the title of Greatest Street Photographer of the 20th century. His synthesis of dramatic action and graphic interest (he locates and contextualizes people within abstract patterns created by architecture, streetscapes, landscapes, light and shadow) was never equaled by any photojournalist, including Smith, before or since.

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