Instant


"Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare", Paris ( 1932) Henri Cartier-Bresson

CARTIER-BRESSON is one of the most famous photographers in history and his works have been presented in many exhibitions all around the world. His concept of photography was very influential for many photographers during the second half of the twentieth century, especially from the first publication in 1952 of his book “Images a la saurette” (Instant images). His theory about the photographer’s intuition is very well known. His intuition enables him to capture the decisive moment which synthesises the essence of the situation happening at that time. Consequently Bresson’s work is not one built on the foundation of series of images but on individual, magical shots which by themselves distil the perception and the feelings of the author.

The image I have chosen clearly high lights this vision. This street picture was taken in 1932, that’s seventy years ago; it’s necessary to point out this date for different reasons. In the first place because at that time photographic cameras were much more limited than they are today; that’s why, to be able to capture such difficult conditions of light and movement with the perfection and clarity as he has done, presents a very significant challenge. Secondly, because if this image, which has become one of the contemporary photographic icons, was presented today in a digital photography festival someone could easily say, “What amazing things can be done with photo shop!” Such is the clarity and the precision of the composition of this image, the balance of the different elements, shadows and contrasts. A curious paradox for a picture by someone who rejected radically not only the editing of images but also the simple modifications of the “frame” he obtained with his shot. His respect for his decisive moment, as he called it, led him to the point of developing some of his pictures with the frames of the negative in order to prove that nothing had been manipulated.

Let’s go back to the picture. Probably Bresson was walking one autumn morning with his camera around his neck through the streets of Paris looking for a special shot. And he really found it. It had been raining a lot the night before and the deserted streets at the back of the station are covered with water. This creates a flat surface reflecting the same light as the cloudy Paris sky. Only three fingers depth of water have created this watery mirror which will reflect with great sharpness the figure of the passer-by. He wants to cross the square and starts by using the ladder that’s lying on the ground. At the end of the ladder he decides to jump trying not to get his shoes wet. And it’s at that moment that the miracle happens. His right foot remains just above the water; the man remains suspended in the air as he was preparing himself to start a short flight which will lead him to the other side.

How has this been possible? Is it really a miracle or could it be that the dancer in the poster which appears in the background on the left of the picture has inspired the passer-by. For a moment it has given him this magical impulse that makes us see the dancer literally fly over the stage in a ballet performance.

The truth is that our man seems to be dancing in the same way. It’s also possible that before starting to cross the main character, after seeing the poster’s reflection in the water, had asked his advice. Further in the background another man is looking with astonishment at the scene through a fence and in order not to leave him out, the mirror reflects his image in the water. Yet further in the background the rooves of the gate Sant Lazare appear surrounded the smoke of the steam trains that arrive and depart.

Those who said at the time that photography was a thing of magic were absolutely right!