Saturday, March 11, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #3

The third of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #3: Henri Cartier-Bresson's Siphnos, Greece, 1961

Though definitive statements of the following form, particularly in an aesthetic medium, are as a rule at best controversial and at worst meaningless, one could nonetheless well argue that Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was the most prodigiously gifted photojournalist ever to use a camera.

Paraphrasing what the mathematician Mark Kac once said of Richard Feynman (the great 20th Century physicist), one can say of Cartier-Bresson that "there are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. [Henri Cartier-Bresson] is a magician of the highest calibre." (see Wikiquote entry on Feynman for original quote).

Cartier-Bresson is most famous for introducing the idea of the "Decisive Moment" into the photographer's lexicon, which he described in his celebrated book of the same name in 1952 as "...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."

One can see the "Decisive Moment" at play in virtually all of Cartier-Bresson's photographs; there is no "one best" representative of it, and which images illustrate the idea better than others depends more on context, mood and the temperament of the observer than innate quality. The first Cartier-Bresson image that I can remember having a profound influence on me was his Siphnos, Greece shot reproduced above.

I was struck (when I first saw it as a young photographer, and even more so now, after trying, mostly unsuccessfully, at capturing that stubbornly elusive "Decisive Moment" for a few decades!) by the perfectly seamless (and, seemingly effortless) blend of geometry, time, and dynamics.

The geometry is exquisite in its "imperfect" precision; the buildings are old and withered, the road is well traveled and decaying, but together there is a deep harmony. The harmony is only enhanced by the deep contrast, with the shadows - falling just so, at this precise moment - adding an almost surreal virtual dimension to the physical architectonic shapes. As if all of that were not enough to yield a magnificent moment, the girl racing up the stairs is positioned in exactly the right spot to give life to the entire picture, and with a body posture whose geometry exactly matches that of the surrounding forms and shadows. Masterful, is not the word! You can feel her energy; you feel her heart racing as she makes her way up the stairs; the coolness on her skin as she is momentarily embraced by the precise shadow. And then, as a final reward, as the eye slowly pans around the scene, small details to savor are revealed: the texture of the road, the detail on the door on the right, the architectural "accent" on the otherwise featureless wall at the upper left. The ineffable transience of space, time, geometry, dynamics, and the natural flow of human life, is captured at the Decisive Moment. And then, Poof!, the girl is gone, the shadows pass, a cloud moves in overhead, and the moment is gone, forever.

I have been chasing decisive moments ever since; and it is the third reason I have always been passionate about fine art photography.


Claudiu said...

Hello Andy,

I'm sorry to disturb you, but do you know by any chance where i can browse through "the desisive moment" by Cartier-Bresson?

On that old site it isn't available anymore.

It would mean a great deal, thank you!

Best regards,

ilachina said...

Claudiu, I am sorry that HCB's Decisive Moment was removed from the site I provided a link to (probably a legal move by HCB's estate; to be honest, I was amazed it was up for as long as it had been!). Short of purchasing the book for yourself (which is out of print and is very expensive for surviving editions), you can check some youtube videos (such as and/or look for fine retrospectives of HCBs life and work on Amazon.