Behind The Gare Saint-Lazare

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As one of the world’s first photojournalists, Henri Cartier-Bresson has transformed the profession through his concept of “the decisive moment”, the dramatic climax of a picture where everything falls perfectly into place. Traveling extensively since 1931, Cartier-Bresson’s images have been renown throughout the world due to his remarkable sense of timing and his intuition in seizing the right moment.
To fully understand Cartier-Bresson’s pictures, one must first understand his artistic philosophy. Born in 1908 in Chanteloup, near Paris Cartier-Bresson’s passion for photography erupted from his love for the early motion pictures. As he would later say, “From some of the great films, I learned to look, and to see.” Films such as Eisenstein’s Potemkin and Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc “impressed [him] deeply”. Cartier-Bresson yearned to capture real life. He believed in order to do this the subject must be oblivious to the photographer. Indeed, he has never in his professional career contrived a setting or arranged a photograph, an outlook that stems from his strong belief that the photographer should blend into the environment and not influence the behavior of his subject. Cartier-Bresson sees photography as, “…a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality.”
Cartier-Bresson worked only with a Leica camera, one of the quietest and fastest of the day. The Leica camera was perfect for Cartier-Bressons documentary style photography, but as an added effect he put black tape over the metallic front as to remain as hidden as possible, a technique that has been copied ever since. He used mainly a 50mm lens and black and white film. Cartier-Bresson shot his pictures with a 50mm lens, because in order to capture a decisive moment, one must be ready at any given instant, not allowing time to change lenses. Also, maintaining the full size of the original photograph was very important to Cartier-Bresson. He felt that cropping a picture would dilute its meaning.
Cartier-Bresson’s use of black and white film is a result of the technology of his day. Though color film was available as early as 1907, it remained difficult to use until the 1970’s. The early color film emulsions were very slow; causing close shots to look cramped. Also, blurred backgrounds in color were much less acceptable than they were in black and white. These limitations caused early color photographs to confine themselves to static subject or bright lights. So as a spontaneous photojournalist Cartier-Bresson had little choice in the matter.
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