Exercise 5.3

Exercise 5.3

“Look again at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in Part Three. (If you can get to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London you can see an original print on permanent display in the Photography Gallery.) Is there a single element in the image that you could say is the pivotal ‘point’ to which the eye returns again and again? What information does this ‘point’ contain?

Include a short response to Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in your learning log. You can be as imaginative as you like. In order to contextualise your discussion you might want to include one or two of your own shots, and you may wish to refer to Rinko Kawauchi’s photograph mentioned above or the Theatres series by Hiroshi Sugimoto discussed in Part Three. Write about 150–300 words.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare


It seems the pivotal point of this photograph is the frozen step. My eye moves from the striding man, to the reflection, around the ‘white space’ of the water and back to the man.

Before I started this course, I hadn’t actually even heard of Bresson, so my response to his work is still reasonably fresh. Its really unsurprisingly he is so celebrated, as his images are ridiculously beautiful. I feel a sense of time travel, particularly when viewing this picture, as this is certainly a frozen moment. The sense of atmosphere and balance of dramatic light and dark tones add to the drama. I’m curious – was Breton himself influenced by previous artists or photographers? Well, his contemporaries included other pioneering folk such as Robert Doisneau and Brassaï but what went before is usually the more formal portraiture we associate with the Victorian era.

There are a few ‘natural’ moments captured before Bresson. This picture is of course a static pose, but what a lovely glimpse of her personality.

And again here – this is posed, but more playful and imaginative than the standard images we are used to seeing from early photography


Casting further back, Bresson would have been familiar with the tradition of narrative painting, for example, a classic plot device, the letter…

Vermeer, The Letter


And dramatic tension!

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes


Hogarth’s Gin Lane shows an alarming decisive moment, due to the perils of drink


Some victorian social documentary photography captures a moment. Here’s some examples from ‘Street Life of London’ (1876)

by Radical journalist Adolphe Smith in collaboration with photographer John Thomson.


These images – such as this poor little girl searching for her parents amongst the drunken customers, were deliberately intended to shock, and highlight poverty and social inequality.


So was Bresson concerned with social issues? Probably not in quite the same way. But I have read criticism of him as being ‘cold’ because his composition is so perfect and elegant. I really disagree, I think he loved humankind and had a empathy for his subjects.

Bresson has influenced so many people since, it’s hard to condense so much ‘post Bresson’ work. However, as an example, using a form of ‘visual haikus’ Rinko Kawauchi is concerned about capturing ‘A moment about to happen. This feeling of catching the tail end of a whisper or the beginning of a storm is more important to her than planned composition.’ – Lucy Andia

Her work differs from Bresson, in that it is more about the story, and less about the perfect shot. I get the feeling that many modern photographers feel that ‘perfection’ has been done, and its time to move forward with a more edgey approach. Kawauchi seems to almost serve as an opposite to Bresson – if he presents a perfect pure note, she counters with a challenging discordant one. And so any art form shifts and explores subject matter in different ways, sometimes referencing what has gone before, sometimes rebelling against it.

Untitled (from the series: Uatatane), 2001
Untitled (from the series: Uatatane), 2001

I think Bresson had an extraordinary eye that cannot be ignored to this day. His framing, and pure instinct for capturing this moment made the camera his perfect medium.


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