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Investigating a Cartier-Bresson Image
Old 02-08-2013   #1
George61d
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Investigating a Cartier-Bresson Image

Hi

I love Cartier-Bresson's portraits. It is not always obvious what makes them so great. The image of Georges Rouault is one of those, so I decided to spend some time investigating it and wrote this blog entry. I would like to hear your views on it.

http://wideanglecafe.wordpress.com/2...ng-a-portrait/
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Old 02-08-2013   #2
George61d
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Thanks for the advice. I spend a lot of time examining the works of other artists, photographic or otherwise. It is the only way to train the eye. However I have never looked at one of Cartier-Bresson's paintings...some home work for the weekend.

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Old 02-08-2013   #3
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I think your attributing a little too much forethought to the image, I would say the main element that both gives background/context is the cross, there happened to be a lamp and a radiator that had to be accommodated within the composition in order to get the cross, but I don't believe he had anymore thought for them than that, the vertical lines of the radiator change nothing, it's all about the cross.
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Old 02-08-2013   #4
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Just quickly going through some of his Magnum photos, I see the golden ratio, vertical lines ( top left to lower right), many images where the subject with no vertical emphasis is in the lower right. Maybe this is over simplified, but when shooting I find myself falling back on a few simple composition types. More power to the ones that have the eye that can quickly pick out the 1.61 ratio.
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Old 02-08-2013   #5
George61d
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The Cross is clearly the main element that gives meaning. However the use of repetition of lines and shapes appears a lot in HCB's images. I don't think it always strengthens the composition. The lamp just looks cumbersome to me.

I do think the linkage to the book is not accidental though, but I could be wrong
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Old 02-08-2013   #6
George61d
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By the way, how do I change the title of the post. I used Bresson instead of Cartier-Bresson by mistake
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Old 02-08-2013   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PKR View Post
You need to think about the items in the 3rd dimension (illusion in a 2 dimensional piece of art). The layering of elements to keep the 3rd dimension illusion working. HCB was very good at this.
PKR, by that do you mean the lamp is there to create the illusion of depth ?
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Old 02-08-2013   #8
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I think Cartier-Bresson took many of these images later called "portraits" on the fly; I think in all his photographs of people, city, streets, etc (ie not the landscapes, which are surprisingly magnificent) he worked quickly and relied on a deep visual aesthetic training to frame them intuitively. I suspect given his druthers he'd have preferred not to have that lamp where it was, the radiator either; and unlike many here I don't think the cross was a big point of interest either. I think he was interested in the subject. His aesthetic is simplicity and classicism and harmony etc. He made do. If I were he, I'd look at that and wish I'd taken a step and a half to the right. But it's still a good picture of the subject and that was what mattered most to him.
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Old 02-08-2013   #9
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I enjoyed the read! What I really liked is how the portrait led you to investigate a bit more on Georges Renault and how you transmitted your findings to the reader. Many of us - including myself - may not even have ever heard of him before! Does not that simply show that Cartier-Bresson's photo is still powerful by transmitting Renault through time? A major achievement for a portrait photographer I would say.

The other thing I liked is how you clarified the meaning of the cross in the photograph and how it is related to Renault's work. That simply shows that Cartier-Bresson knew about the formal importance of the background in a portrayal photograph to communicate the cultural significance of the portrayed person. He seems to link Renault directly to his work, which is good for an artist's portrait. Cartier-Bresson seems to have been an artist himself so he had some sensibilities with regard to the communication of meaning through visual form, be it painting or photography.

Cartier-Bresson also seems to have had an intuitive understanding of harmonic visual configurations, a sensibility that is also vital to painters. He utilizes this talent in most of his published photographs. I guess he simply tried to make the best out of that scene.

Personally I find a certain ambiguity in the geometric composition and in the moment of that photograph. Compositionally there seems a certain "indecisiveness" between the center of the cross and the right hand of Renault. Also the event of pressing the shutter seems to show Renault in a moment of transition between two stable postural configurations. If this had been done by intent is up to speculation. However, the expression of Renault is very strong.
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Old 02-08-2013   #10
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I do not know if we overinterpretate the image, but one striking line is the one from Renault's right hand leading up his arm to the face and from there to the center of the cross and vice versa. If this was done by intent it is quite ingenious. Linking the cross to the right hand through the face.
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Old 02-08-2013   #11
Richard G
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I liked your blog post. Very dispassionate and even handed. da Vinci and divine, however.

I agree with gho, possibly like me fond of French cars, and with PKR. That three dimensional aspect he mentions is noticeable in so many portraits by Cartier-Bresson. I love the one of François Mauriac, staring off to his right into infinity from bottom of the frame, as the out of focus room recedes behind him. Cartier-Bresson gave an account of the dual portrait of the Joliot-Curies. He arrived at their door and took the shot within seconds. He entered and took tea and a few more photos but he knew that he already had what he wanted.
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Old 02-08-2013   #12
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Interesting discussion, and George, an interesting analysis on your blog. There was a discussion in another thread about a photographer named Thomas Hawk who is contemporary and is trying to post a million photos in his lifetime. Reactions to Hawk range from "good stuff" to he's clueless. I looked at his compositions, though, and most of them are technically quite good.

Now, I'm not comparing his work to HCB, but they have something in common. They both made/make a LOT of exposures. HCB, it's reported, would shoot as many as twenty, 36 exposure rolls in a day. When you shoot that kind of volume for years and years and years, you develop a natural sense for exposure, composition, and timing. You shoot a lot of misses at first, but the more you shoot, the better your overall product becomes. The more you shoot, the more natural good framing becomes to the point that its instinctive. There's little conscious though given to the framing and composition; more attention is paid to the subject for facial expressions, lighting etc. etc.

Now that said, a cigar is sometimes still just a cigar. HCB may have known Rouault well, and may indeed have intended to convey exactly what you've analyzed... and then again perhaps after a brief meeting, Rouault was getting ready to leave and HCB did the first shot with his hat on and asked him to take it off for the subsequent shots and the angle he shot at was what he could get... without notes or commentary from HCB, there's no way to know really.

It's interesting to conjecture though. It's always educational to look at a master's work.
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Old 02-08-2013   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hepcat View Post
[...]
It's interesting to conjecture though. It's always educational to look at a master's work.
Indeed. I woud say it is an indisputable masterpiece. I am not very familiar with Cartier-Bresson's work though.
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Old 02-08-2013   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hepcat;2070614}[...
exposure, composition, and timing.
Yes! These are - for me - indeed the key variables of making the best out of a given scene! Never thought about it consciously, but as you name it, these things are very fundamental, once one has spotted an interesting subject.
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Old 02-08-2013   #15
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I think this is over analysis: "...The dominant vertical line is the cross, and it is placed on the golden ratio, dividing the photo into what is known as the Devine Proportion. If you have read the DeVinci code you will have heard of the Devine proportion before. The vertical is echoed in the grills of the radiator and less formally in Georges Rouault’s clothing..."

This shot isn't a still life that the photographer carefully composed and set up. It's a snapshot, with a guy centered in the frame. Intuitively, and the same as most people shoot. The cross wasn't "placed according to the golden rule.." and the radiator wasn't positioned there to "repeat the vertical lines..."

Grasping for nonexistent meaning doesn't make it true - like the Da Dinci Code.
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Old 02-08-2013   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by goamules View Post
I think this is over analysis: "...The dominant vertical line is the cross, and it is placed on the golden ratio, dividing the photo into what is known as the Devine Proportion. If you have read the DeVinci code you will have heard of the Devine proportion before. The vertical is echoed in the grills of the radiator and less formally in Georges Rouault’s clothing..."

This shot isn't a still life that the photographer carefully composed and set up. It's a snapshot, with a guy centered in the frame. Intuitively, and the same as most people shoot. The cross wasn't "placed according to the golden rule.." and the radiator wasn't positioned there to "repeat the vertical lines..."

Grasping for meaning that isn't there doesn't make it so - like the Da vinci Code.
I started out to read the thread first, then followed the link to the blog and was about to think about a reply but Garrett's post above perfectly sums it up.

For me, the essence of the portrait is the somewhat strange facial expression of Rouault. The proportions look almost a little monkey like.
Personally I find everything in the background is totally distracting especially the radiator but foremost the lamp. If the person was religious and the cross does have any meaning for him or was there just by chance, who knows. It's too late to ask the artist himself and unless there is access to the contact sheet we will never know.
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Old 02-08-2013   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by goamules View Post
[...]

This shot isn't a still life that the photographer carefully composed and set up. It's a snapshot, with a guy centered in the frame. Intuitively, and the same as most people shoot. The cross wasn't "placed according to the golden rule.." and the radiator wasn't positioned there to "repeat the vertical lines..."
[...]
Yep, it may just have been the result of post hoc editing out of quite a lot of different approaches to same subject. I mean, personally I take quite a few photographs of the same scene and select one frame that I like most based on my personal sensibilities. Contact sheets are very revealing. ;-)
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Old 02-08-2013   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PKR View Post
George; You may find this of value..

http://www.burkuzzle.com/articles/st...mes_081306.pdf
Wonderful.

I agree with Icebear above. It's the posture, the look, the flexed index finger, the puzzlingly straight middle finger, the imminent departure, the acceptance of the camera, his dislike of photographs, his respect for the photographer etc. A moment.
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Old 02-08-2013   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PKR View Post
I think the big difference between HCB and the new digital folks is editing. I've read HCB's quote about "It takes a lot of milk to make a little cheese" but today we have guys like Hawk uploading the entire unedited dairy farm daily. That's a huge difference. HCB edited his work. If you search for his contact sheets on the web, you will see the ones that made it and the ones that didn't. I shoot a fair amount of film and am quite happy to fine one or two images I want to print. Of those, few make it as long term favorites.
I would have to agree that quantity overloads quality. With film, you spend a lot more time pouring over proof sheets and then decide what to print. Then you spend the time doing the print. There's a big investment in making that print for all to see. With digital you shoot it, upload it and forget it. And it litters the Web forever.
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Old 02-08-2013   #20
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i've not seen any of roualt's work other than in books and on the 'net. that this is the man who created these works is a wonder to me - until i look at how he is looking at hcb. THEN, i begin to understand ...
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Old 02-08-2013   #21
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No doubt HCB was a highly skilled and competent artist, but I can't help but think there's a bit too much over-analysis going on here. He couldn't previsualize the image's DOF in the viewfinder because rangefinders aren't TTL, nor is the framing that exact to account for subtle compositional elements near the frame's edge, regardless of his experience with the camera. So whatever compositional elements involving lines and planes of focus were most likely selected after-the-fact, in the editing of the contact sheet. He probably shot many frames in these kinds of portrait sessions.

I've read many other art critics who over-analyze an artist's work to the point of ignoring the mechanics of how the image-making process actually functions. Often times an artist simply does not have the degree of control over the subject environment that the critic claims for him, but rather relies on repetition and serendipity. It is the skilled artist who can repeatedly conjure those happy accidents time and again.

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Old 02-08-2013   #22
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Although I've seen many HCB photos I really like, this isn't one of them. I don't mean to denigrate anyone else's tastes, just offering a counterpoint.
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Old 02-08-2013   #23
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If you want to see a Cartier Bresson portrait in which the composition really is miraculous, check out his famous shot (one of many he did over a few years) of Albert Camus. Note the coat collar & lapels against the form visible in the background.

http://leblogdesovena.com/wp-content...594564157.jpeg
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Old 02-08-2013   #24
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On the golden ratio front, I have a postcard of this shot and have measured, the line that would divide the photograph laterally, measuring 1.61 up from the bottom, passes along Camus's right (on our left) eye. That line's counterpart, measuring down from the top, passes just along his chin. Two such lines measured from left to right and right to left perfectly frame his face. And the tip of his nose, the very tip, is in the exact center of the frame.
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Old 02-08-2013   #25
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Folks, thanks for the great comments and links to other work. I really enjoyed reading them this morning.

For sure HCB will have taken a number of shots, and then this one has surfaced not just from his editing table, but that of museum curators also. What I wanted to consider is why did this one get selected, what made it worthy of inclusion, while the others get left on the editing table.

I focused on the formal compositional elements and the potential linkage to the work of Rouault. I did not write about it but the expression of Rouault did give me cause for thought. I really like that others on this thread have contributed their thoughts, and have found different elements of worth.

So looking at a single image reveals levels of complexity and responses that I did not see at the start. Frankly when I saw it in the book my first thought was that it was not a good Image.

However looking at one image leads to conjecture, and perhaps over analysis. One must look at the image in the context of the body of work to try to understand the photograph and the photographer. When one stands back and and considers the body of work, you see that the use of formal composition, repeating lines and shapes and strong expressions area all key elements in a HCB portrait. These are the ones that survive the editing table.

Bit even in the end if we over think things it helps our understanding of the art in general.
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