Secrets of a negative

John Loengard:  “Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St Lazare, 1932. Paris Hands: Georges Févre, 5/11/87”

Magnum photographer John Loengard photographed the actual negative of Cartier-Bresson’s famous image, “Behind the Gare St Lazare, 1932”. It reveals some fascinating secrets about this picture.

Inverting the image in Photoshop shows how it would look in a contact print. It appears to be a bit under-exposed, although it is nitrate film so it might behave differently in a darkroom. In 1939, Cartier-Bresson destroyed a lot of his early work, including negatives, and that explains why this is only a single frame. Curiously, the negative has sprocket holes on only one side.

The photographer did not like to crop his negatives: “It very rarely happens that a photograph that was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.” But this negative was cropped to make the famous image: his lens has included an iron rail on the left, and more water and sky than he wanted. Despite his statement, he cropped out about half of the negative area. Well, he was only 24 when he shot it.

I’ve drawn a line around the printed area

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