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


Behind the Gare St Lazare

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St Lazare, Paris, 1932

Cartier-Bresson’s famous photograph was shot behind the Gare St Lazare, the large railway station in the north of the city. He was shooting through an iron fence, across a flooded yard, with the rear of the station in the background. I’ve figured out the location of this shot, and can even find the fence that C-B pointed his camera through – it’s still there. Using Google Earth and Google Street View, I can take you to the sacred spot!

Google Street View in the Rue de Liége. Cartier-Bresson was shooting through this fence, at about this point.

Google image of Rue de Londres the far side of the park, facing the back of the station which can be seen on the right. In the Cartier-Bresson image, a dark figure can be seen in the background, walking along the footpath on the left.

Google Earth image showing the position and angle of view of Cartier-Bresson’s lens, aiming across what is now a park, towards the rear of the Gare St Lazare.

Google Map of central Paris, showing the location of the shot.