One of the things that pains Maria and me is the number of people who are enamored with a single shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson (“Behind the Gare Saint Lazare“). You know the one, the “Defining Moment” shot. But here’s the thing: it’s a shitty photo. It’s underexposed, details are lost because of the lack of contrast except with the water, and a part of the photo was cut of by the fence he was shooting through. What made it seem magical was 1) “Wow, he caught that guy in mid-air. No one had done that before, right?” 2) It was a perfect instance of catching something unique happening.
Well, bollocks to both.
First of all, if you’ve been reading our series, you’ve already heard of Jacques Henri Lartigue. He was also quite enamored with catching people in mid-air, doing things that had heretofore never been seen on camera. Like HCB, he was able to do it because he OWNED A BLOODY FAST CAMERA! The moral of this story is: Don’t confuse technology with artistry.
I can hear the HCB groupies shouting, “No fair! Lartigue took shots of his friends, so they were sort of posed.” Uh, what’s your point? Some were staged (though real) and others were candid. The real differences were that they were masterful photos and he had the insight to expect them. More importantly, all of the photos on this post were possible primarily due to the existence of fast cameras. These shots are no longer difficult to take. In fact, they weren’t then either.
Oh, and just to be clear, all of the Lartigue shots above were taken before HCB picked up his first camera. In fact, the photo of his cousin, Bichonnade, on the stairs, was shot in 1905 when Lartigue was 11.
And, you people are denigrating HCB’s artistry as well. What makes this photo isn’t the silhouetted man’s leap. It’s “RAILOWSKI.” It’s the ladder in the water that mimics the fence and which mirrors the other fence rising in the background on the hill. He saw the setup, with multiple images that mirrored railroad tracks (this was taken behind a railway station) and waited for someone interesting to make it a photograph. That’s about composition, not BLOODY JUMPING. And we are ignoring the obvious here, that the man leapt into a puddle of water because HCB told him to. Yes, I (and others) are suggesting that the whole thing was faked. You know what other famous photo was faked? The shot of the dying soldier taken by Robert Capa, another founding member of Magnum Photos. (Just saying.)
So, in the future, PLEASE stop the drooling insistence on posting shots of things doing other things in the air. I avoid these shots almost weekly just to keep Maria from vomiting. Okay, I’m joking (a bit) but there is a serious thread. The Defining Moment is related to COMPOSITION. It is where artistry meets the street. Be really wary of blithely following trends or artists without first doing some real research on precisely what it is you are going to attempt. Following our series is one good place to start.
It makes me wonder if HCB gave up photography because people focused on this one, stupid photo instead of the portrait he took of Gandhi shortly before his assassination. No wonder Bobby McFerrin hates “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Love, Bill and Maria