By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CREATION OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS, AT ONCE, A VERY SIMPLE ACT and one of the most complex of creative processes. It is both instinctual and intellectual, a thing of sudden inspiration and a constant weighing of variables. It is, simultaneously, a marveling at the random arrangement of all the stars in heaven, and an attempt to line them up in a pattern of one’s own desire. Few photographers have been able to consistently balance these disparate aims over the course of a career. Fewer still have been able to reduce the process to written wisdom as well, a quality which makes Henri Cartier-Bresson a prophet among poets. He not only defined human truth with his beloved Leica (which he called “the extension of my eye”) but also managed to speak about that miracle in a manner no less articulate than his grandiloquent images.
HCB’s career coincided with the rise of the great photographic feature magazines of the 20th century, like Life, Look, Parade, and Harper’s Bazaar, where a new kind of reportage was being invented on a daily basis, with photographs evolving from mere illustrations of mega-events to stories about people who lived their lives beyond the obvious ranks of fame and power. Photographers were entering into a more emphatically emotional role, both harvesting and inserting interpretive energy into what had formerly been a simple act of recording. Global displacements of individual humans, measured between the World Wars in the Great Depression and other seismic events generated image makers who could train their cameras to take the measure of joy and suffering in an incredibly intimate fashion. Cartier-Bresson’s beat, which was global as well, enhanced his eye for the universal, the common feelings that crossed cultural and geographical boundaries. But he was also helping to create a new way of seeing, a system that was equal parts brain and heart.
In describing what he would later call “the decisive moment”, that golden instant where subject and story reached their peak of impact, HCB described what, to him, was the aim of the enterprise:
For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight. It’s a way of life. (It is) the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms.
Composition. Interpretation. Empathy. Narrative clarity. These became the mainstay elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, the difference between just freezing something in a box and capturing something of fleeting but essential value. They also became the pillars of a discipline that would eventually be labeled “street photography”. Perhaps it was his practiced way of seeing which, late in life, led him back to painting, the visual medium for total control. It is one thing to learn to see, and it is something else entirely to be able to harness that vision, to make the camera execute it with a minimum of loss from the original conception. But the anticipation that something is about to happen keeps us addicted, and that in turn keeps us trying. As HCB himself recalled of the moments before the click, “I’m a bag of nerves waiting for ‘the moment’…and it wells up and up and it explodes…it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Seeing is everything.” It is a testament to how perfectly Henri pre-conceived a composition that almost all of his photographs are exactly as he shot them, without cropping or re-framing of any kind. They were just that right…..the first time.
We all occasionally get seduced by equipment, techniques, fads, even windy essays like this one, veering from the central mission of our art. But that mission is as simple as it is elusive: seeing is everything. With it, you can light a candle against the darkness.
Without it, you are worse than blind: you are unknowing.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOMETIMES THROWING EVERYTHING INTO THE POT MAKES FOR BETTER STEW. Yeah, of course a simple bowl of tomato soup can be elegant, understated. But so can pitching every stray ingredient into the mix and hoping the carrots play nice with the asparagus. Matter of taste depending on one’s mood.
So it goes with street photography. Some insist that isolating a single story, a singular face, a tightly framed little drama is the way to go. And that is certainly true much of the time. But so can casting a wide net, framing a grand, interactive ballet of conflicting lives and destinations. It’s like the concentrated, two-man drama of Waiting For Godot versus the teeming crowd scenes of The Ten Commandments. Both vibes come from the street. Just depends on what story we’re telling today.
From the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great street photog of the mid-20th century, I learned to love the seeming randomness of crowds and their competing destinies. HCB was a genius at showing that something wonderful was about to happen, and I love to see him capturing the moment before there even is a moment. His still images fairly beg to be set into motion: you are dying to see how this all comes out. If HCB is new to your eye, I beg you, seek him out. His work is a revelation, a quiet classroom of seeing sense.
I have posted both quiet stories and big loud parades to these pages. Both have their appeal, and both demand a discipline and a selective eye, which means I have a few light years’ worth of learning before me in both areas. That’s the great thing about art. You can’t get done. You can be on the way, but you will not get there. Not if you’re honest with yourself.
For the viewer, myself included, you have to go beyond “snap looking” which is the audience’s equivalent of “snapshooting”. Some images require that you linger, just as some wines are to be sipped instead of guzzled. Slowing down when viewing a frame is the best tribute to whatever pauses the photographer took in creating it in the first place. This picture business is truly a shared project between creator and user.
Gosh, I feel all brotherly and warm-hearted today.
Sort of an urge to be part of the crowd.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.