FIG.1<br>Landscape near Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, J.N. Niépce<br>France, 1827FIG.2<br>Henri Cartier-Bresson and his parents, Magnum Photos<br>Chanteloup, France, 1909FIG.3<br>Henri Cartier-Bresson with his camera, Magnum Photos<br>Chanteloup, France, ca. 1920FIG.4<br>Studio of André Lhote, H. Cartier-Bresson<br>France, 1927FIG.5<br>Three boys in Lake Tanganyika, M. Munkácsi<br>Congo, 1930FIG.6<br>Wandering violinist, A. Kertész<br>Abony, Hungary, 1921FIG.7<br>Ghetto, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Warsaw, Poland, 1931FIG.8<br>H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Valencia, Spain, 1933FIG.9<br>H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Brussels, Belgium, 1932FIG.10<br>H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Asilah, Morocco, 1933FIG.11<br>H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Santa Clara, Mexico, 1934FIG.12<br>La partie de campagne, E. Lotar/Magnum Photos<br>France, 1936FIG.13<br>Coronation of George VI, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>London, United Kingdom, 1937FIG.14<br>Gandhi's funeral, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Delhi, India, 1948FIG.15<br>Traffic jam on the Suzhou canal, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Shanghai, China, 1948FIG.16<br>Ile de la Cité, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Paris, France, 1951FIG.17<br>Rue Mouffetard, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Paris, France, 1952

V. The Decisive Moment


Point & shoot: photography, a child's play?

In 1952 Henri Cartier-Bresson publishes his first book, Images à la Sauvette, which would, over the years, become his best known work. In the book — showcasting 125 black and white photographs throughout his entire career and a cover designed by his close friend Henri Matisse — Cartier-Bresson for the first time characterizes his own photographic style with the French catchphrase « le moment décisif ».

In an attempt to provide a brief summary of the relatively large number of articles on this theme, we might be best to highlight the contribution of Jean Clair, former director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, to the retrospective Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Man, the Image & the World. Here, the most fascinating link is explained between le moment décisif and kairos, the ancient Greek word for « the right time » or « the perfect moment », which degraded to simply mean « time » in Modern Greek. From this, it is obvious that the English title The Decisive Moment does not completely cover the same subtleties.

Kairos is also used for « a sensitive place » or « a crucial point », including in Homer's Iliad. In this sense, kairos also comprises the art of visual discrimination: almost intuitively — in a fraction of a second — the artist discovers the key point around which he will build his image. This later evolved to include working with perspective.

“Photographier: c'est dans un même instant et en une fraction de seconde reconnaître un fait et l'organisation rigoureuse de formes perçues visuellement qui expriment et signifient ce fait.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

When taking the hunter as an example, it is only a minor step to catch the time aspect that lies in kairos. The hunter not only concentrates on the fatal spot where he will hit his prey, he also launches his bullet at precisely the right time. He makes his decisions on the fly, just like the photographer in Henri Cartier-Bresson does. In a saturated visual landscape he manages both to determine the importance of an event and to bring harmony in his images. Over and over again he chooses the right element as the center of his photographs.

It is exactly this duality — the spatial and the temporal — which makes the term kairos probably the best one to summarize most of Cartier-Bresson's work. It is about the photographer who senses where to make a haunting image and when to fire to give the audience an extra dimension.

“Photography appears to be an easy activity. In fact, it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is in the instrument.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Furthermore, we can also recognize Cartier-Bresson — the nimble photographer who is constantly moving among the people and tells us with a simple release of the shutter us a complete story — in an epigram of Poseidippos (ca 310 BC – 240 BC), in which a conversation takes place between the god Kairos and a passerby.

"Who are you? —I am Kairos, the Ruler of the World! Why do you walk on the tips of your toes? —I am always on the road. Why do you keep a sword in your right hand? —To remind mankind that I, Kairos, am sharper and quicker than anything." Needless to say that the French title Images à la Sauvette — but especially the English one, The Decisive Moment — can hardly convey these nuances.

FIG.18<br>Behind the Saint-Lazare station, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Paris, France, 1932

Behind the Saint-Lazare station, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Paris, France, 1932

The example par excellence of le moment décisif is undoubtedly Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare (FIG.18), a picture from 1932. The photo depicts a man who tries to avoid a puddle, just before his feet inevitably hit the water. Besides the fact that Cartier-Bresson, unlike his fellow photographers, did not immortalize the man when the water is already splashing, he also gave the image an extra dimension. For the silhouette of the jumping man is also reflected in the water and his shape is frequently repeated in the water ripples around the ladder, in the curly yard stock, on the circus posters in the background and — hard to see in the picture above — in the hands of the station clock.

Although this photo, dating from his early period, does not share the sharpness his other prints have, it is very typical of the sense for detail and geometry that is present in Cartier-Bresson's entire oeuvre. It even tackles the so-called « luck factor » some critics dubbed him with. The picture is so balanced that mere chance is not an option here. His photos remind us of a well-orchestrated painting, although Cartier-Bresson never directed the subjects and just waited for the right moment. The viewer never gets bored.

On a side note: because it was shot through a narrow hole in a fence, the picture was cropped on the left. Highly unusual, since Cartier-Bresson always stressed that his pictures were not to be cropped by the editors of the magazines he worked for. For him the negative was a completely finished image, in which nobody was allowed to intervene.

FIG.19<br>During the liberation of the transit camp, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Dessau, Germany, 1945

During the liberation of the transit camp, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Dessau, Germany, 1945

In the category « caught red-handed » we may in no case forget the unmasking of a Gestapo informant during an interrogation at the liberated transit camp of Dessau (FIG.19). From this scene, the force of the still image is evident. Cartier-Bresson also recorded the event on tape for Le Retour but only the photo — the « frozen image » — is able to render the outrage and the disbelief of the woman who suddenly recognizes her betrayer in such an impressive way.

FIG.20<br>Agglutinated Chinese for the distribution of gold, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Shanghai, China, 1949

Agglutinated Chinese for the distribution of gold, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Shanghai, China, 1949

During his stay in China, Cartier-Bresson witnesses the last six months of the Kuomintang dictatorship and the subsequent transition to the Maoist regime. While the value of the Chinese currency is tumbling down, Cartier-Bresson catches the image above, in which a mass of people — from all walks of life — are suppressing each other at the distribution of gold (FIG.20). With heads and arms emerging from the strangest corners, it looks as if the photographer — just out of view — was pushing on the left to get everyone in the frame. The subtle gap in the foreground seems to stress the absurd contrasts of the dictatorship.

“Il n'y a rien au monde qui n'ait un moment décisif.”

Cardinal De Retz

More than fifty years after the publication of Cartier-Bresson's Images à la Sauvette, history teaches us that it is mainly this book that was picked up by the public. While this is all except unjustly, we may wonder whether the popularity of this single work doesn't overshadow the genius of his many other pictures. After all, in his later work Henri Cartier-Bresson will refocus on landscape and portrait photography — not without success.

FIG.21<br>Robert Flaherty, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Louisiana, United States, 1947FIG.22<br>François Mauriac, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Paris, France, 1952FIG.23<br>Self-portrait, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Italy, 1933FIG.24<br>Lenin on the Winter Palace, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Leningrad, Soviet Union, 1973FIG.25<br>Model prison of Leesburg, H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>New Jersey, United States, 1975FIG.26<br>Self-portrait, H. Cartier-Bresson<br>1987FIG.27<br>Henri Cartier-Bresson, M. Franck/Magnum Photos<br>Provence, Frankrijk, 1979FIG.28<br>Henri Cartier-Bresson drawing his self-portrait, M. Franck/Magnum Photos<br>Paris, France, 1992FIG.29<br>Salvador Dali, D. Bailey<br>Paris, France, 1972FIG.30<br>H. Levitt<br>New York, United States, 1940FIG.31<br>W. Eggleston<br>United States, ca. 1980FIG.32<br>H. Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos<br>Georgia, Soviet Union, 1972 { Printer-friendly version } { Read on: Portraits By Cartier-Bresson (1952 – 1974) }
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