Looking at ‘Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare’ (Fig. 1) I feel troubled. Maybe controversially, I don’t particularly like this photo; I’m not drawn to it, and I find it difficult to decipher and find a connection with the image itself. For me, the real interest in this photograph lies within the story that Cartier-Bresson made this image accidentally:
“I slipped the camera through [the railings] but I couldn’t see, that’s why it’s a bit blurry… I couldn’t see a thing through the viewer.’ ‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’ ‘No.’ ‘That was lucky.’ ‘It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance, that’s all. If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.”
(Cartier-Bresson, ‘L’amour tout court’, 2001)
This is the magic of this image for me, The luck of creating that image at the exact moment before the man’s foot touches the water which created so much movement, and yet so much stillness – a moment that a split second before or after would not have held such interest for most. And capturing this moment was entirely unintentional.
I think that’s why I am naturally drawn to more unplanned, spontaneous photography and photojournalism. Why my own work away from studying is centred around documentary photography in which the viewer gets to connect with that moment, rather than the subject, for example. I enjoy these snapshots even more when possibly considered inconsequential or routine at the time the image was made, but when viewed again many years down the line the photograph holds a precious insight into a period of history or a window into what it was like living during that time. Which to some extent holds true for ‘Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare’.
I think this historical connection is often important to me when looking for photography I enjoy viewing. When looking at the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, it was the architecture of the cinemas at the time that is really what interested me; viewing old architecture in cinemas screening modern films, and how modern cinema design has changed, rather than his intended act for the image, which was capturing an entire film in one frame.
I think this is why, other than the obvious moment created by the leaping man, the second part of the image I am always drawn to is the darkest figure by the railings. I find myself wondering more about him, what is he doing just standing there? Is he connected to the jumping man in any way?
I find this figure’s position within the image slightly jarring although I’m unsure why. I feel this way about the whole image really. I find my eye darts around the image taking in the wealth of information contained within it, but it doesn’t feel like a comfortable trip around the frame. It all feels slightly off to me but I struggle to put my finger on why. Maybe it’s the blur of what might be seen as the main subject, maybe it’s the looming nature of the dark figure in the back of the image, maybe it’s the lines of the fence feeling so jaggard across the photograph, maybe it’s my struggle to break down the composition of this image in terms of subject positions and lines. Whatever it is I don’t find it as comfortable and pleasing on the eye as some of his other work which seems to flow so much nicer and utilise leading lines shapes and human connection in, I believe, more easily accessible ways.
The online gallery Henri Cartier-Bresson- Photographer’s Biography & Art Works – Huxley-Parlour Gallery (2021) contains a number of works by Cartier-Bresson that I find far more enjoyable and engaging:
With the exception of Fig. 4, what draws me to these images mostly is the human connection, either with direct or implied eye contact, or the relationship between the subjects.
I was relieved when watching ‘Hans-Peter Feldmann Interview: Advice to the Young’ (Channel, L. 2015) to hear Feldmann say that with art you should pursue what you feel is right, and not follow a ‘recipe’ by others. This reassured me I don’t have to like ‘Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare’ or any other work or artist that is recommended by others. I don’t feel the connection to this particular image – and that’s ok. I do love many other images by Cartier-Bresson. I think this just goes to show that art is subjective and very much about the completely personal experience and the enjoyment taken from it; both in creating it and viewing it.
List of Illustrations:
Fig.1 Cartier-Bresson, H.(1932) Behind the Gare St. Lazare. [Photograph] At: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/98333 (Accessed 08/09/2021).
Fig. 2 Cartier-Bresson, H. (1956) Bougival, Yvelines, France [Photograph] At: https://huxleyparlour.com/artwork/bougival-yvelines-france/ (Accessed 08/09/2021).
Fig. 5 Cartier-Bresson, H. (1972) La Defense, Paris, France [Photograph] At: https://huxleyparlour.com/artwork/la-defense-paris-france/ (Accessed 08/09/2021).
Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St. Lazare (video) | Khan Academy (s.d.) At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/cubism-early-abstraction/photography-early-20th-century/v/cartier-bresson-behind-the-gare-saint-lazare-paris-1932 (Accessed 01/09/2021).
Channel, L. (2015) Hans-Peter Feldmann Interview: Advice to the Young. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPPhiSgv5fw (Accessed 01/09/2021).
Genova, A. (2016) ‘One Artist Turned Abandoned Theaters into Apocalyptic Visions’ In: Time 09/09/2016 At: https://time.com/4471712/hiroshi-sugimoto-remains/ (Accessed 25/05/2021).
Henri Cartier-Bresson- Photographer’s Biography & Art Works – Huxley-Parlour Gallery (2021) At: https://huxleyparlour.com/artists/henri-cartier-bresson/ (Accessed 01/09/2021).
O’Byrne, R. (2014) H. Cartier-Bresson: l’amour tout court. At: https://vimeo.com/106009378 (Accessed 06/09/2021).