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Matinee: 'Henri Cartier-Bresson: Pen, Brush and Camera' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

12 October 2013

As we've said before, Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the third in our series of Saturday matinees today: a half-hour BBC documentary featuring the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Shot in 1998, this 50 minute production that traces his development also features Cartier-Bresson himself discussing his work -- "a living morgue," as he describes his binders of images, with "once in a while a good picture."

More than the "decisive moment" with which he is often saw associated, photography for him was a form of drawing in which he could enjoy his love of geometry without the frustrations of pushing a pencil around a piece of paper.

The film shows a few drawings he did later in life when he described photography as "immediate: shoot, shoot, shoot" but drawing as a "meditation."

And for a little more fun, here's a fanciful piece we wrote in January 2011 after seeing a show of his images at SFMOMA.

Cartier-Bresson Shot JPEG

We were barely out of the first room of his early work when we realized Cartier-Bresson shot JPEG. There was no way he would capture Raw or even Raw+JPEG and then fiddle with the tone and color for hours. He was a man of action. And a man of action puts a couple of rolls of film in one pocket and his Leica 35mm in the other and sets off on his world journey.

No Raw, no laptop, no Lightroom, no presets, no workflow.

As the curator rightly pointed out on one of the rare bare spots on the walls of the exhibition, the small camera was an innovation the young Henri could not resist. It made photography so convenient. And beat the pants off drawing and painting images when it came to productivity.

It was the visual Twitter of its day. A short exposure for the complete image.

But Cartier-Bresson was something of a haiku master (to stretch that metaphor). His short exposures were packed with poetry. Early on and late in the day.

We simply enjoyed the extensive show, marveling at the man's focus on what was before him and not on the politics. Later, thinking it over, one image stuck in our mind.

It was an early shot when he was on the French Riviera at Hyeres. It's a landscape oriented image, a 3:2 aspect ratio.

That aspect ratio mattered to him. He printed for publication but didn't appreciate the inevitable cropping. So much so that one agency he used would print the clear frame around the image (forming a black frame on the print) to show it was full frame.

Reproductions of the 1932 gelatin silver print vary quite a bit. But trust the flatter, lower-contrast ones (even if a higher contrast image looks better to our eye). In those days one shot for publication and publications required flat prints. The flash exposure of a halftone would put a dot in the unexposed dark areas of the image so the ink wouldn't clog up the shadows on press.

Here's a link to a good reproduction.

Now that you can see what we were looking at, let's just say it's a pretty unconventional shot.

At first, the subject appears to be the stairway. It consumes most of the frame, after all, with its iron railing. It isn't a spiral, but climbs at steep angles with sharp corners. The railing itself is bent, not curved, to follow the steps. All that folds back upon itself to make the narrow descent to a hairpin turn at street level. This stairway is obviously on a very tight corner.

But when your eye gets down to the street, you realize there's another subject in the frame: a cyclist. Not a racer, but an ordinary fellow making his way through the city. The bike has fenders, the rider wears a dark suit and a cap. At least, that's the way it seems. He's something of a blur.

That's one unconventional aspect of the shot. A blurred subject.

If a sports photographer today took this shot, he would use a much faster shutter speed to freeze the cyclist and a very shallow depth of field to get that shutter speed in natural light. He'd zoom in a bit to crop out the distracting railing as much as possible without leaving the context confusing. If he didn't just run down the steps to lean over into the street for the shot.

And he'd have a completely different shot. The railing would be blurred, the cyclist sharp. Like Cartier-Bresson, though, he would have caught the cyclist in the open part of the road -- but unlike Cartier-Bresson he would have done it shooting in Continuous mode at 12 frames a second or more. Cartier-Bresson did it in just the one exposure.

The pro would have had a dramatic shot of the cyclist.

Cartier-Bresson, instead, gives us a meditation on movement. There are the awkward steps of the staircase, frozen on that corner, emphasized by their iron railing. Fixed and inefficient, the path of the elderly, the playground of children too young to leave home. And in contrast there is the blur of the young man on wheels, rolling through a hairpin turn over cobblestones.

You can't look at the shot and not feel the freedom that flows through it. The arduous steps with their bar-like railing and the still figure somehow, magically, racing by it without even moving.

That was Cartier-Bresson. And why he shot JPEG.

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