The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, 1952. Cover, Henri Matisse

I recently had the privilege of looking through Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book, The Decisive Moment. It sells for $2000 these days. The Decisive Moment is a legendary book, a retrospective of his photographic work that established his prestige and inserted a new phrase into photographic terminology…

“…if the shutter was pressed at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.”

C-B disowned the phrase in later years but it usefully captures an important aspect of his practice. It’s about the medium’s genetic link to the subject of time and hence timing, and you can see how his timing worked in this photograph from the book, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932. Aiming his camera through a hole in a fence, he caught this little ballet, a man jumping a puddle and his reflection, corresponding shapes on the ground, a circus poster in the background which echoes it all. It’s the earliest ‘serious’ photograph I can recall seeing, at about 15, and it helped propel me into a lifetime of photography.

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

The focal point of this photograph is the man and his reflection, specifically the foot about to touch the water. More specifically, it’s that gap between the foot and its reflection, the suspense created by the absence of closure. I’ve Photoshopped the feet to eliminate the gap so the foot has touched its reflection. The tension has gone, and so has the particular thrill of this image.

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression…”

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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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Upside-down Henri

Henri Cartier-Bresson had a famous habit of turning photographs upside-down and sideways to test the strength of their composition. If a picture still worked upside-down, there must be some validity to its design. If an upside-down picture doesn’t work, then it must be relying too much on its subject-matter. It would just be a record of something and not a made work of art.

“He always turned them all around and upside-down. It became like a sort of dance. Strangely, he didn’t want to look at the picture.” – René Burri

Let’s put his own images to the test and see if they pass.

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

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyéres, France, 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Children Playing in the Ruins, Seville, 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson,

They did pass, didn’t they?

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.

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