a blog by knut skjærven

Posts tagged “Henri Cartier-Bresson

Connotations: Syntax

The Syntax. © Knut Skjærven.

Syntax is the last of the connotation procedures mentioned by Roland Barthes.

He says: “Naturally, several photographs can come together to form a sequence (this is commonly the case in illustrated magazines); the signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that – what the linguists would call the suprasegmental level – of the concatenation”./24

The Free Dictionary defined concatenation as “a series of interconnected events, concepts, etc.” Or simply “To connect or link in a series or chain”.

In spite of the difficult words used by Barthes the idea is very simple. If there is more than one image you have a possible picture story. The connotative content is then based on all the images involved and not the single ones in isolation. I don’t think it is necessary to be more difficult than that? Call it suprasegmental if you like.

Henri Cartier – Bresson would have liked this since he 9 years earlier spoke about the same phenomenon. In his prelude to The Decisive Moment (1952) he speaks about the picture story and the need for having more than a single photo to illustrate a point: “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is the whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.”/The Minds Eye/23

Often Cartier – Bresson uses more than one image to cover a story. As do most photo journalists.

There are different dimensions in this phenomenon. Both Barthes and Cartier – Bresson suggest that the syntax is within a single story, for instance, in a magazine. But what about the connotations that might emerge from all the images in a specific magazine? Or even more magazine. Could be called an editorial style. There certainly is a level of syntax there too.

What about the even more complex situations that emerges when both the viewer and the viewedthe perceiver and the thing perceived, are considered as segments in the same event? Just a question.

Definitely the last words on connotation procedures have not been said yet. That is another story. As for Roland Barthes, the story ends here.


Training Sessions:
 See Street University.

Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977; Henri Cartier – Bresson The Minds Eye, aperture, New York 1999.

Connotations: Aestheticism.

Docklands. © Knut Skjærven.

This is actually one of the very few places where Roland Barthes refers to the great master of French street photography: Henri Cartier – Bresson. The article is written in 1961 and Bresson was at his peak of performance as a photographer.

In describing his fifth connotation procedure Aestheticism, Barthes uses these words: “Thus Henri Cartier – Bresson constructed Cardinal Pacelli’s reception by the faithful of Lisieux like a painting by an earlier master. The resulting photograph, however, is in no way a painting …”. /24 (Here is the photograph in question).

In the sentences before this rare reference to Cartier – Bresson, Barthes says: “For if one can talk of aestheticism in photography, it is seemingly in an ambiguous fashion”./24 When photography try to turn painting it could be a) either a trial or an aspiration suggesting that photography, like painting, indeed is an art form in its own right; or b) “to impose a generally more subtle and complex signified than would be possible with other connotation procedures”./24

This is then the ambiguity that Barthes is talking about: the aspiration to be art, or to invoke more subtle connotations. Fair enough.

The reference to Cartier – Bresson is very convenient. Cartier – Bresson’s dream in early days was, in fact, to become a painter, and he chose photography only as a second option having tried his way as a painter with no great success. Cartier – Bresson was indeed familiar with the rules of composition and he stuck to the classic guidelines all of his life. It is said, that he even had a little notebook with him in which he kept sketches of famous paintings as an ongoing inspiration for his photography. A brilliant idea if that is the road you want to take as a photographer.

The big question is: What could be the connotative effects of for instance Cartier – Bressons road to photography leaning as he did on classical guidelines for composition. Here comes the answer, or at least one of them: the connotations embedded in such a procedure is that of harmony, beauty and pleasantness. But also control. All of them Cartier – Bressons trademarks as a photographer.

It would be absolutely wrong to say that Cartier – Bresson was a copier of master painters, but is would be absolutely right to state that he indeed used classical rules for compositions in his photographic work.

To use a similar path to photography, or for that matter NOT to use a similar path to photography, both require knowledge of the matter. Knowledge of painters’ ways, knowledge of compositional structures. How else could one hope to connote anything bases on aestheticism.

This discussion brings us back to more practical matters: One of the ideas of Street Photographer’s Toolbox is, indeed, to disclose and discuss basic rules of composition. Not to become painters, but to stay photographers.

Have a good day.



Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Training Sessions: See Street University.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.

Copyright: Knut Skjærven (text and picture).

Itching Image: Decisive Moment / Simple

Come Fly With Me. © Knut Skjærven



Nothing is more important in photography than catching a Decisive Moment. Such moments makes or breaks an image. Here is one that is pretty decisive. I young lady hanging in the air at the landing place of the Copenhagen Marathon, May 20, 2012.

That said, what is a decisive moment? Sometimes it is easier done than said, because all do not agree of what a decisive moment is.

In a way all photographs are decisive moments. They can never be repeated and for whatever reason the release button is pressed, it renders a photographs of a decisive moment. Many people stick to such a definition and you will see lots and lots of photographs described as decisive moments.

However, such a wide definitions renders only small letter decisive moments. Let’s call them that.

Decisive Moments with capital letters are very different. More like the definition given by Cartier – Bresson: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a faction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (The Minds Eye, Aperture 1999, page 42). These moments place a demand on both the content of an image as well as of its form. Compositions play a larger part.

How do I know the difference, you may ask? The best way to know the difference between small and capital letter decisive moment, is to take a good look at the image. With the same eyes and mind that you look at the world around you. If the image hits you as being striking it probably is. If it hits you as being Decisive it probably is. Look for the content and look for the form. The overall composition.

Can you learn how to take pictures of capital letters Decisive Moments? Good question. Some of it yes, but not all. It is like in the real world: Luck is important, and if you prepare for luck you will probably get it. You certainly can prepare.

And the other way around.

Good luck with it.


This post has been prepared for a new website Street Photographer’s Toolbox. That site will not be public for a while yet. It is under construction. However, some of the many posts that will go into the new toolbox for street photographers can be read here. You will also get bits and pieces of the new toolbox at Facebook Page Street Photographer’s Toolbox.  Enjoy.

The Lightness Of Life (11)

The Light. © Knut Skjærven

About The Light. The picture has nothing particular to do with the text below. It has been added to break the monotony of the page. It was not part of the original interview. 

And HCB taught you all this?

Hehe, no he did not, but he inspired some of it. And that is what photography is all about. Being inspired. Using HCB as a mentor is not such a bad idea. You should try it. Or try someone else. The point is that there is not that many out there that can be used for this. To me HCB is definitely the best. In fact, I know of no one else.

Give me one sentence: What is photography all about?

I could certainly try.

Photography is the engaged process, and end product, of deliberately or un-deliberately reinventing the world by the help of a camera in a way that is arresting, interesting, attractive –  and sometimes even amazing.

But it got to be good. The best of your ability. You must make an effort. I stick to the light side, as well, because photographic world depression does not take you anywhere.

That was one sentence PLUS. And if you now ask me whatever happened to the decisive moment, I have to tell you that it’s right in there. HCB would have known.

Thank you.


About Knut Skjærven.

 He started, he says, to take photography seriously in 2010 when he decided not only to burn pixels, but doing a project that lasted more than between coffees. He has stayed with it ever since.

From then on things went quickly. Knut runs and/or has initiated the following sites and projects: barebones communication (2007), Berlin Black and White (2010), Phenomenology and Photography (2010), Facebook Group On Every Street (2011), Facebook Group On Every Second Street (2011) and Facebook Group The Europeans (2011).

He was asked to test the new Leica D-Lux 5 for Leica (2011), and was interviewed by Leica shortly after.

He also does more academic writing like this article for Studia Universitatis (Romania) that was published in 2011 (see page 137). He holds two university degrees in communications, film and philosophy.

Knut has written two books and lots of articles. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. But he is Norwegian, he insists. He is a blogger, researcher and a photographer. His main project for 2012 will be The Europeans. See this site. Europe needs an updated photo album, he said.

So that is what he is going to make.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson. The Lightness Of Life

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1); The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9);The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (10)

In Frames.© Knut Skjærven.

About In Frames. The picture has nothing particular to do with the text below. It has been added to break the monotony of the page. It was not part of the original interview. 

Do you have a photographic mission?

Do I have a photographic mission? Hmm, interesting question and the truth is that I don’t know. On the other hand, I probably know a little more now than I used to know.

If you had asked me a year ago, no two years ago, I would have said that I have no photographic mission beyond that of taking pictures. However, the more I study photography the less important photography becomes in terms of having an existence of its own. Photography does not exist in a vacuum and it should not be treated as if it did.

Photography is just another way of being in and handling the world, so the question you should ask is really: Do I have a mission in life?

And the answer is: I think that most people have a mission in life even if they do not formulate it and spell it out in words. I find that it for me comes down to something like live and let live. If I can express that in photography that will be my photographic mission.

What I sometimes remind myself of is that time spent with photography, or any other activity for that matter, is time NOT spent with anything else. You can’t use the same capacity twice. Every economist knows this well: You cannot both spend and invest the same money at the same time. If you try to do that you end up in a financial mess.

More specifically, I cannot at the same time take a seat at Café de la Paix for a day of shooting people passing the street, and feed the ducks in my own back yard. Just as an illustration. I fail to see the benefits of what I call the dark league in photography. Photography better be about death and sorrow, they say, so we can save the world with our images. Better be portraits of depraved people too so we can show how miserable some are. I don’t go all with those masters of disasters.

Shooting the odd drunk on the way to coffee at the Ritz is much too easy. It is also deeply disrespectful unless you make it your project and bring the poor fellow back home and give him a good life. Or give him a good day. Taking his picture will certainly not help.

Also: As grown-ups we all are role models. That goes for photography too. If you want to be treated with respect, then show respect. If you want to be treated like a jerk, then be a jerk. Photography should basically be respectful.

Basically, all angles (camera angles and real life angles) have the same right to exist, but the foot must be put down when the rights and the privileges of having angles, are threatened. They still are in many corners of the world. We don’t have to look far.

If the rights to take pictures with and from different angles are threatened, we can no longer use our cameras as they were intended to be used: Taking pictures from different angles, with different settings and in different contexts. I hope I will fight for that right. Call that a mission if you like.

I have to add one thing: You have to do the best you can. Always try a little harder. I don’t believe that any person should be satisfied with doing things half way or in mediocrity. Photography, mission or no mission, is mostly hard work.

If you absolutely have to save the world with your photography, be aware that social progress comes from play and not from display.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1);  The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (9)

Open and Closed Images

 The first thing I found was that there seemed to be two types of images: open images and closed images.

On closer inspection I found, that what seemingly were the open images in fact were the closed ones, and the closes images were the open ones. The best way to explain this is by showing you two pictures: The Mirror (12) and The Reception (13).

The Mirror (12). © Knut Skjærven.

The Mirror (12). At first glance this seems to be a very open image. And in a certain sense is it. The whitish space may suggest openness, but in fact this is a closed image. It is self-contained. You don’t ask for more information that you have already got in the picture. I call this, then, a closed image.

The Reception (13). © Knut Skjærven.

The Reception (13).

 At first glance this is a very closed image. There is no room for more. On second glance this image begs for questions to be asked. Why is his young lady passing? What is she doing there? What is she looking at? I call this an open image. By the way, the elderly man at the right is photographer Arno Fischer.

One, Two and Even More Dimensions

I also found other interesting things: Some of the photographs had a one-dimensional structure, but by far most of them had at least a two-dimensional structure. Of course I knew some of this beforehand, but I never sat words on it like this.

In the one-dimensional picture the message is fairly simple. Let me show you two examples of what I would call one-dimensional photography. This is , by the way, not negative meant but only a label used to find out what is often going on in photographs.

The two images are Shipmates (14) and K-damm Couple (15).

Shipmates (14). © Knut Skjærven.

Shipmates (14) is shot in Copenhagen this summer (2011). This is an example of what I call an one-dimensional image. The content is clear: A group of men/officers are standing at the end of a ship ladder. That is basically the message. Visually the message is also very simple.

 Be aware that one-dimensional pictures do not need to simple in terms of structures. Shipmates is simple, but K-damm Couple is not.

K-Damm Couple (15). © Knut Skjærven.

K-damm Couple (15). One of my own favourites.  Shot in Berlin in November 2010. I was out looking for a late night fast dinner, and I passed these guys in this pose on a bench about 200 meter from my hotel. I can’t neglect this, I thought, and so I asked for permission to take a couple of pictures. Same pose, but now they were aware on me. This is a one-dimensional image, but compared to Shipmates (13) above the composition is much more complex.

 That much for one-dimensional photography. Let’s look at some two-dimensional images from the dinner table selection.

If the one-dimensional images thrives on the exchange of meaning from image to spectator, then multi-dimensional images add a dimension to that: there is a exchange of meaning already inherent in the image.

Let me even here show you some examples: The Stranger (16) and The Flying Dutchman (17).

The Stranger (16). © Knut Skjærven.

The Stranger (16) is shot in May 2011. Charlottenburg, Germany. This is a good example of what I call a two- dimensional image. The lines of communication are not only from picture to viewer. There is another point of interest as well. What is happening, or is not happening, between the two people in this shot? Are they in some way connected? In what way? Questions posed, but not answered. As a photographer you can force such questions into play

K-Damm Couple (17). © Knut Skjærven.

The Flying Dutchman (17) shot at the Jewish Memorial in Berlin. Yes, another example of a two dimensional picture. It has two lines of communication. First one from the image to the viewer, second one from the group of three in the foreground,  and the flying Dutchman in the background.

Add to that that many pictures are multi-layers. When you talk about dimensions, as I do it here, you talk about relatively distinctive exchange point of meaning between the image and the spectator. Or within the images.

When you talk about layers you add dimensions that to a larger extent is based on the culture you bring with you. There are always such cultures, and a layered message may be more or less distinct. One (male) viewer stated for instance that he read sexual connotations in The Stranger (15). Others may read political, symbolic, or other not necessarily intended messages into almost every picture.

Her are two photographs with potential layered messages. The first is Blue Note (18). The other one is The Stool Mover (19).

Blue Note (18). © Knut Skjærven

Blue Note (18) is shot in Berlin in October 2011. There is an internal reference in this image consisting mainly in the non-spoken dialogue between the posh couple in the foreground, and mother and child sitting begging in the background. The simple juxtaposition of the two groups establishes this shot at least with  a two dimensional structure. Add to that the social comment, or non-comment, that can be induced from the picture. You have wealth and poverty expressed here. The young couple, that long gone have gone stale in their headlessness, turns their back on the realities unfolding quite close to them. They have chosen to turn their back on social realities, only to take the occasional glimpse throught the car mirror up left. This could be said to be a layered cultural message. Is this a comment on the present crisis in Europe? Hardy, but some might interpret it that way. The message is subtle.

The Stool Mover (19). © Knut Skjærven.

Just a quick word on another optionally layered image. The Stool Mover (19) is from May 2011. Shot in Berlin. This is potentially a layered image, in that it ALSO indicates a reality of things. The white, black dressed and very exclusive women standing comfortly inside the house, are watching when the differently dressed man is carrying out his chores. The women a placed high, the man placed low as to indicate their social status. He is their servant.

 Clearly there are much more to be said about the language of images. My point here is only if you have the ambition to move from picturetaker to photographer there are tools that could help you along that way. HCB new all of this. That’s is why his universe is so long lasting and inspiring.

It must be stressed that such tools are not here to substitute creativity as a more instinctive and spontaneous process when taking pictures. They are only there to assist such creativity. Using the elements of a visual language will become second nature and act as silent servants for the spontaneous eye. The sword has got two edges. Not one.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1);  The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (8)

What does composition mean to you?

 I am glad you asked that question. Composition means everything but in a very special way.

Composition is a sword with two edges. You need to know the fundamentals for the reason of using them, but also for the reason of not using them. If you know how to ride a bike you are given two options, not one. You can decide to ride it, or you can decide not to.

I do not go around measuring thinks. I still think that looking at or studying good photographs, and paintings for that matter, are the best education you can get. So I do that from time to time. And I pick up good compositions from just walking around in the cities or in the countryside. They are all over.

I take the time study the best images I can get hold of. Paintings or photographs. I look at them over and over again. I hope I pick up things. I try to figure them out. However, I never think much about it when I am out shooting afterwards.  It is more like an automatic scanning of scenery that goes on in the background. You are arrested by reality. Images come to you. Not the other way around.

I try to get a certain balance in my photographs. Or, if I decide to, I try to get a certain un-balance in the shots. I have these two options. I do not try to shoot in blindness, which by the way was my speciality not that long ago.

A very important side track was this: I discovered that an eye on composition in pictures also trains you in an area that I had not expected. You get to become a better planner. It is like the knowledge of foreground and background, the knowledge of circles and squares makes it clear that this is not only about images, but about life in general. That was new to me.

I learned that you can only have one focal point at the time. That goes for life as well. You can have many things in motion at the same time still, but you need to set focus on the one you are working on right this minute or nothing will materialize with quality. Just like in photography. Simple is solid.

I find all this to be a to be a questions of training. All of us can do it. Not to the refinement of HCB, but we all can improve along the way. In our own tiny scales.

The more tools you have in your rucksack the better. The point that once it is there you can forget all about it. That is the way is works. It works silently for you if you tell it to. Very easy, in fact.

Photography is hard work in the beginning. Later it gets much easier. HBC collected images from 20 years for his book Decisive Moments that was published in 1952. And another 5 years for his The Europeans from 1955.

That’s is how hard/easy photography is. Think about that for a while. I did.

Let me show you two images that work for me in terms of composition. I find them both to be complex since there are many elements in both. I cannot tell you exactly why they work, and that does not really bother me either. It is like lateral thinking setting in. You rely on the automatic scanner. I use that a lot.

The images are Englishman in New York (10) and Rainy Day (11).

Englishman In New York (10). © Knut Skjærven.

Englishman in New York (10). I did not set the title on this image. Someone else did, and I am thankful because it fits perfectly. I am content with the composition of this image, because to me it is ”a resting image”. Not too little and not too much. I am in no positions to analyse an image of this complexity, but I would like to know why I find this pleasing. If there is a why? Is does not really matter, does it.

Rainy Day (11). © Knut Skjærven.

 Rainy Day (11). You can install life into a shot by taking it at the right moment. All these people are actually on the move since it was pouring down. You can have additional movement in a shot by separating people, groups of people, objects, space and directions. The basic point here is that you need to foresee what will happen. Not that you have much time to do it in. Berlin, June 2011. All of this has to do with composition and timing.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections.)

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1); The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9);The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (7)

What about the difference between picturetaking and photography?

I had to find a way of describing the transitions you go through when wanting to take photography seriously. The best phrase I found was that this was a transition from simply being a picturetaker to that of (maybe) becoming a photographer. Picturetakers take pictures, obviously. Photographers literaly takes picture too, but they do it with a clear purpose and by knowing and using the alphabet and grammar of visual communication. HCB knew very well what he was doing. He was definitely a photographer.

Being a photographer takes training and knowledge. Being a picturetaker does not. That is the different. It is HUGE.

It is all too easy creating some sort of result when you use a camera. Anyone can buy one and start taking pictures. They don’t even have to leave the shop to start their new career as “artists”.

Knowing how to press the button, however, make them no photographers. Buying canvas and brushes and starting using them do not make you a painter either. You need to know how to use these tools. You have to study and you have to practice. You need to know something about colours, brushes and canvasses before you can start doing work as a painting artist. You need to know something about perspective and composition as well. That learning takes years.

Anyone can cover a canvas with paint using a brush as anyone can cover a film/card with light using a camera. That has, however, only little to do with painting or photography.

Yes, I had been taking pictures for years, but good enough results were far more randomly acquired than anything else. I could come home with 3000 images and decide that I did not want to look at any of them. It was a mess of styles, contents and time wasted. That actually happened. Now I can go back to these pictures knowing what I am looking for. I find some good ones, even. This change in attitude made a big difference.

Photography means “drawing with light”. I simply asked myself what does the pencils look like when you want to draw with light. I started coming up with answers and I tried deliberately and consistently to use the pencil that my experience had provided me with. And I looked for new experiences. I got myself a mentor as you know. All these things were part of the new deal.

Having a mentor does not mean that you copy what he has done. It means that you use his experiences and results but walk down you own path..

I found, along the way, for instance that is was much harder to do a simple picture than a complicated one. Simplicity is very important. I can’t recall any great photograph that was not very simple.

To do a simple picture is a very calculated process. You need to get rid of all the access information. Make sure that things fit together. That can be quite a task. This world belongs to the photographer.

Mind you, a simple picture can be complex, but never complicated. That difference is important to make.

Let me show you two images that I find complex but not complicated. They are structurally complex, but in terms of content they are very simple. The first one is Footwork (8). The second one is The Smoker (9).

Footwork (8). © Knut Skjærven.

Footwork (8), shot in Hamburg in August 2011. A very simple image of two ladies in a bookshop. However, it only works because the details are in order. Two pair of crossed legs, dark dress and white dress on light and dark backgrounds. Different modes and different styles.

The Smoker (9). © Knut Skjærven.

 The Smoker (9), shot in Berlin in May 2011. What holds this image together is the rhythm of the tiles and the windows. But what is interesting to me are the people and their occupations. The curious couple wanting to see what hides on the other side of the door. The woman outside in her tintin dress at the exact moment she is ashing her cigarette. And, of course, the fact that this is a black and white photograph that works better in colour. The orange colour match there is between the trash can, the plastic bag and the inside of the building. And again the bluish colour match there is between the female smokers jacked, the water pipe and the row of tiles at the top of the picture

Some will probably say that working along these lines sounds too calculated, difficult and even academic. And photography is supposed to be fun? Maybe so. But think about in another way. It takes about 5 years become a lawyer, even longer to become a medical doctor. Takes a lifetime to a become painter, a songwriter or a good harmonica player. Why is it that as soon as some people get a camera in their hand they instantly become brilliant photographers? You tell me.

The point is that they don’t. It is impossible.

The good thing is that photography, on top of everything else, also is a craft and like any other craft it can be learned. But it is not the craft that makes it alone. It, however have, to be there. You cannot teach anyone to be come a Picasso, a da Vinci, a Bob Dylan, a Wagner or a Mozart. Or for that matter a Henri Cartier-Bresson, but you can teach people how to hold a pencil or a brush, to wait for the right moment and to point the camera in the right direction.

The rest is up to the person in charge, I am afraid. It is up to the man behind the camera. Or the woman.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections.)

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1);  The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (6)

How do you use the visual radar?

It is really very ease. All of us know how such a technique works.

An example: Many modern photo-related programs have, for instance, face detection. You feed the database with pictures of a face and the machine will be able to recognize the face in other pictures. You name that face. It is very handy if you want to search for a person in a large catalogue of images.

In photography the visual radar works the same way. Your mind is the program and that database that holds the data. Like a computer program you have to feed it. Feed it well, and it will serve you well. Feed it lousy, or not at all, and will serve you lousy. Or not at all.

When you study the photographs of famous photographers, or the paintings of celebrity painters, it is like feeding a machine with data.

Also: It helps a lot if you know what you are doing. Roaming museums and photo books will not do it alone. You have to tell your mind what kind of mission you are on. You have to tell it that you are on a data collection mission. You could say for instance: we are here to study the use of light and composition. Whatever you decide. That, then, is what you have to set your mind up to.

Study a limited number of objects at a time. Maybe even only one single picture to begin with. Later you can go for more advanced stuff like a photographers style,  his use of people and spaces. His uses of lights and shadows. Et cetera, et cetera. Soon you will walk down your own alley.

Try to remember what you see. Having HCB as a mentor it is clearly HCB’s photos you want to study. When you have collected enough data you are ready to go to work. In the city, if you are street photographer. In the countryside, if that is what you prefer.

And again, if you just roam around mindlessly you get nothing out of it. Being out there you have to turn on the radar. Let it know that you intend to use it. Let is scan the surroundings for you. The streets, the cafes and the parks. The people passing. When something interesting comes along the radar will stop you. Ask you to take that picture.

You will be surprised how well it serves you once you have discovered that you have one. And you have set it to use.

Kids In Alley (7). © Knut Skjærven.

Kids In Alley (7 ). I would like to have said that this photo is the result of feeding my mind with HCB data, but unfortunately that is not that case. Not that I recall anyway. The reason I can say this is that it is shot in 2002 and that was long before I new much about HCB. Other than the expression Decisive Moment. What arrested me was the strong contrasts on the wall opposite. If I am lucky, I said, someone will pass this alley and I will get a chance to press the button at the right moment. Someone came, they spotted me and the boy tried to get his kid sister out of the way not to spoil my picture. Luckily he didn’t manage.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1); The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (5)

People and Spaces

Let me mention another line of direct inspiration.

HCB, in his best images seems, to be in total control. I can’t find a better word for it. It is impressive and almost unbelievable.

Within that total control there is the perfect placement of people as a striking factor. I am not talking about one or two people, which in comparison is easy, but about several people. Think about how difficult that is. The chances of blowing it are immense. It is not one decisive moment, but many. Each in their own little frame. We are talking about splits of seconds of control. An alert balance between photographer and photographed, that are very unique.

One of the most impressive images I have encountered in terms of control and people placement, is the picture HCB shot in L’Aquila, Italy in 1951. You know that too, I am sure. Here it is at Magnum’s Website.

It is a dream picture. And it will it always stay a dream because no one today can take pictures like that. However, it is not forbidden to try. So I did.

Let me show you a couple of these trials hoping not to be laughed off the premises. For me this is part of the aesthetic similarity even if there is no surface similarity at all. The two picture are Piano Man (5) and Waiting for Wagner (6).

Piano Man (5). © Knut Skjærven.

Piano Man (5) is shot in Copenhagen in the end of July 2011. One of the things I definitely have from HCB is the importance of distribution of spaces and people. If you have more than one or two people in I shot, it starts to get tricky. You don’t only want to have them in the right place, but you also want them performing the right acts. Here you have got 5 people to deal with.

Waiting for Wagner (6). © Knut Skjærven.

Waiting for Wagner (6) is actually shot the same day as Piano Man (5). Very close to it, as well. Here you deal with 13 people that all have to be in the right place. On top of that, you want them to be engaged in a meaningful activity, as well. I find these things very challenging, and I often try to make something out of it.

 HCB’s dedication to detail has been a clear inspiration for me. And it still is. Very much so.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1); The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness of Life (4)

Tell me more about the inspirations you have from his photographs.


How do you honour a master? For me the answer was easy. You don’t copy but you let yourself be inspired. There are certain shots that I found very inspirational.

One of my favourites is the well-known shot from Brussels in 1932. Two Belgian gentlemen are standing by a canvas fence, sneaking into what is going on the other side. One is indifferent to, or unaware of, the presence of the photographer, the other is not. He turns towards the disturbance behind him. You can see his large, dark moustache. Here it is at Magnum Photos.

If luck comes my way I must make a shot like that, I said to myself. I few months later luck came my way and I took he image I call Honouring Henri (2). It is not much, but this was the shot a wanted to have.

Honouring Henri (2). © Knut Skjærven.

I decided that I wanted to take a shot of people looking through the holes of a fence, and possibly with a person looking in the opposite direction. I shot this in Berlin in June 2010. I call it Honouring Henri (2). Not a masterpiece, but I like the idea. People stealing themselves to a glimpse of “the other side”. The human conditions, maybe.

There is another shot that is even more famous than the one from Brussels in 1932. You are familiar with it. I am sure. It is shot by the River Marne in France. It is, by many, recognised as HCB’s Masterpiece. Here at display at Magnum Photos.

I wanted to take a picture with that structure as inspiration. Let me show you two of my trials. The first is Docklands (3), the other one is Indian Summer (4).

Docklands (3). © Knut Skjærven

Docklands (3). This is shot in Hamburg in the beginning of August 2011. I had HCB’s picture from River Marne as the inspiration. It was very deliberate. Foreground, background. The waterfront. People at ease.

What happens is this: Some images that you enjoy gets under your skin and your visual radar tends to halt and address motives based on a similar structure. If you set your mind to it, that is. It is your second nature operating.

Recently a friend well acquainted with HCB, Bernard Jolivalt, made me aware that the picture below, Indian Summer,  reminded him about the famous River Marne shot. Interesting, I thought, that he should say that. Bernard wrote “The perspective of this picture reminds me “Sur les bords de la Marne” (on the bank of the river Marne) taken in 1938 by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The arrangement and postures are similar. In both picture, people stand, waiting. In HCB’s picture, a man pours a glass of wine. In yours, a girl drinks directly at the bottle. Nice coincidence.”

I did not take Indian Summer (4)with any conscious inspiration from HCB, but it turned out that is was there without my knowledge about it. Amazing how your mind works. The Dockside (3) image was, however, very deliberate.

Honouring Henri (4). © Knut Skjærven

Indian Summer (4). The shot is from Copenhagen and taken in October 2011. I had no idea that I was inspired by HCB when I took this. I was reminded by a friend that I was.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1);  The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (2 & 3)

Under The Bridge. © Knut Skjærven.

This image was not a part of the original draft. It has been inserted here to break the monotony of the text page.

How did your interest in HCB start?

I am, as everybody else, fascinated. I am not that old with HCB, actually. I have know some of his work for many years, but only in very small portions and sporadically. He was never a household name with me. No photographers were.

It was not until 2010 that I said to myself that I needed to do something about that. I restarted my interest in photography and I needed a mentor. He was by far the best I could find. So I made him my mentor. I started reading all books by and about him, and I started studying his pictures. I don’t believe in doing things half way so I dug in. I still do.

It did not matter that he was French either (smiling). I have always been a fan of (some) French philosophers and (some) French filmmakers. Particularly that branch within philosophy that had to do with “die Sachen selbst” – non-biased reality. In filmmaking it was The New Wave that hit the cord. In philosophy it was phenomenology. This dual interest goes back to my student years when I had two main areas of study: film and philosophy.

In a way, I have come back home after years of doing other things. It is very enjoyable.

Could you be specific about what caught your interest in HCB?Sure. I was impressed with 4 things.

First of all his photographs. They are, or many of them are, what I would call “resting images”. They transfer a kind of peacefulness when you look at them. There are not too much and not too little. They are complete even down to the tiniest detail.

Also: In his time HCB was a first mover within photography, and much of his celebrity status comes from that fact. That is definitely part of the charm.

Secondly, I became curious to know more about his resting images. Call this the picture context. I started looking deeper, and I started reading around them.

I have two books at my desk these weeks. One is “ Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Artless Art”, by Jean-Pierre Montier. The other one is “Zen and the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel. HCB got a copy of the last book in the sixties and it made a huge impression on him. It seemed to explain what he had been doing all along. Montier’s book is by far the most interesting book on HCB I have found. It is not an easy read, but it is very giving. Goes well with Peter Galassi’s The Modern Century, that I also find to be a good source.  Galassi has written extensively about HCB. He is definitely a major capacity.

Third: What also impressed me was the consistency I found between life and art in HCB’s universe. Seems that the two were one. The more interviews I see or read, the more books I consult, the more photographs I study, the clearer it becomes to me that this unity exists. That is fascinating since many people nowadays operate their camera with the left hand, and the rest of their life with the right hand. Or opposite. That would never work for me, so I am inspired. The two have to be integrated.

Fourth, as I mentioned, I am fascinated by the incredible lightness of life that I see in HCB’s photographs. I find this lightness in both the subjects he picks, the way he picks them and also the way he renders them in prints. Even when photographing dark themes I strongly sense that lightness.

HCB is not in the doomsday league that some photographers and even famous academics, like Roland Barthes, seems to enjoy so much. I never understood why death should be more inspirational than life. Speaking metaphorically.

I don’t see the world negatively and I don’t think that HBC did either. Not in what I read from his pictures or from what he says in interviews and texts. If you have a look at his famous shot from Dachau in 1946 that shot is full of lightness of lifeHere it is.  It is to me a humorous picture. There are many others similar to this.

People who really mean that photographs only carries messages of things having been have understood very little of what photography is all about. Photography was never about death. It was always about life.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1); The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness Of Life (1)

At The Beach (1). © Knut Skjærven.

At The Beach (1) Shot in Normandy, France in 2006.  What goes through Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work is a certain lightness of life. It has to do with the subjects he picks, the way he handles them, and also with the print expression that he seems to insists on. Decisive moments and precise compositions, sure, but the lightness of life is the thread that carries it all.

First of all, Eric, thank you for asking me for this interview.  I am flattered that you suggest that there is a certain inspiration, and maybe even a likeness, in some of my pictures to those of Henri Cartier-Bresson. You said: “I love how your images convey a similar aesthetic to Henri Cartier-Bresson”.

That is a great, great compliment. I am not sure that I deserve it. I know I don’t. After all, it is not that long ago that I started taking photography seriously.

Sure, I have been taking pictures for many years, but it never occurred to me that I perhaps should spend more time with it. It was not till 2010 that I decided to start a proper photographic project. That project is still running. That brought about a change.

I call this change a move from picturetaking to photography. For me there is a huge difference. Not only related to the dedication involved, but also in the ways of doing things.

I have a clue as to what you mean by “a similar aesthetic”. The similarity is in part intentional. I was not sure that anyone would detect it. You did.

The first part of the similarity is based on the mere inspiration of certain of HCB’s themes and his ways of handling them. I do this as a silent honour to HCB. I have great pleasure in doing it. I also learn a lot.

The other similarity is more fundamental. It has, however, not much to do with HCB. It does not spring from him or his photographs. In a sense we share some of the same inspirations. He was there for real, I was there as a distant student and many years later. We refer to some of the same people. People like Luis Bunuel, like André Breton, like Jean Renoir. I know these guys. Not personally, but enough to know that we live in the same street. I also know Jean-Paul SartreAlbert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who all operated in Paris at the same time as HCB. They were important for what happened on the cultural scene in France, or for that matter, in Europe, at the time.

There are even additional sources of inspiration, as you will see later.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life.

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1);  The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

The Lightness of Life: Prelude.

A Dog's Life. ©

A couple of months before Christmas 2011, Eric Kim, sent me a mail and asked if he could do an interview for his blog on street photography. I said, of course, you can. I am honoured. There are some similarities, he’s said, to what I see in some of your pictures and what I see from HCB. That was even a greater honour.

I said, let me draft it and you can pick and choose and ask additional questions.

I should never have said that, because it grew and grew, and I was on the verge letting the whole project drop. I could not get it finished.

After a while I asked Eric Kim if he still was interested? He said yes, and I completed the version I was on and shipped it to him. A couple of weeks later it was on. The interview was publishes earlier this year.

I have different versions of the interview. And it is rather extensive.

Some time has now passed from the first publishing on Eric Kim’s blog. I will publish the interview here as well. The latest version. Each chapter will get its own blog post and later I will connect them all.

I may change and add some of the images, and the text would be slightly different, as well.

The first post coming up shortly. This is only the prelude.

Good luck with the reading.


What About Henri Cartier – Bresson? The Lightness Of Life

(Links to all sections).

Prelude; The Lightness Of Life (1); The Lightness of Life (2 & 3); The Lightness of Life (4); The Lightness of Life (5); The Lightness of Life (6); The Lightness of Life (7); The Lightness of Life (8); The Lightness of Life (9); The Lightness of Life (10); The Lightness of Life (11).

What About HCB? (Click picture)

The Musician. © Knut Skjærven

What About Henri Cartier-Bresson? Click image to read Eric Kim’s interview with this blog author. Or click right here.


The Interview: Sting Happens

The Sting. © Knut Skjærven

/Knocking/ Anybody home?

Sure, please come in. I have been expecting you. I am sorry that I have not been responsive to you calls and your many mails. I have no excuses. Should I say I am sorry?

No, please don’t. As long as you are here. I need to talk to you between your occupations. Have you got half an hour?

For you I have got all the time in the world /smiling/ as long as you are brief about it.

Are  you always this busy?

I am never busy, but I keep sessions like these short not to start thinking too much. Thinking sometimes obscures the case. You just go ahead.

Will do. Here is my challenge. I think I mentioned this before.

/Interrupting/ Forget what you mentioned before. Just state it now.

/Interrupted/ Yes. Thanks. You have indicated that there is a link between phenomenology and photography and you have suggested certain structural similarities. You even say that this affinity goes directly to the heart of street photography. That puzzles me a bit. I simply don’t get it, so you need to explain this to me. Please.

/Staring into the air as if full of resignation/ Yes, I understand. I will try to explain what  I mean with that. You’ll get the short version. The long version I will save for the book that I will never write, right?/Smiling/. Take phenomenology first. Two terms are important: the natural attitude and the phenomenological attitude. You need to go from the one to the other to do phenomenology. Are you with me?

Think so. The natural attitude is the attitude you are in most of the time when you are on your daily chores, right? The phenomenological attitude is the attitude you take on when you arrest, freeze, bracket a moment in the natural attitude to investigate it a bit further. Phenomenology calls it bracketing, right?

Pretty much so. You have got the important distinctions. Let me now take this a step further. Have you ever wondered how you get from the natural attitude of everyday life to the phenomenological attitude of a less everyday life? I have, and in the beginning I could not figure it out. I did not think that this change of attitude could come by itself. So I started looking for things that could trigger the transition from one attitude to the other. My answer, this far, is that there must happen some sort of event for that to happen. If not, why should a person want to make such a transition even if it was only temporary? Without such an event, the transition would never happen. There would be no need for it to happen. No door to walk through. Not even stairs to climb.

Hmm … you say event, are we talking about the distinction between chronos and kairos?

Gosh, you are getting brighter by the minute. We most certainly do. Chronos being the time passing, kairos being the events in time that changes or alters things. Did not HCB use these notions too?

He might have, yes. Is it the decisive moments you have in mind?

I definitely have. Such an event could be of any sort, and I will not mention them all, but it has to do with some sort of incident that make you stop, make you want to reflect. Could be a personal matter, could be something happening around you, could be any kind of negative or positive friction. I will call it a STING. Like the musician. Simply STING. STING happens. Something hits you that is not within flow of routine expectations. In a photograph it could be a striking composition, a striking content of any sort. In some bright cases it will be a striking both. Still with me?

/Smiling/ Think so.

/coffee break/

Now, let’s take it a step further into photography. You remember that I made a distinction between picturetaking and photography? Yes you do. If not, you can read about it here.

I remember.

When you operate in the natural attitude you are a picturetaker. When you are operating in the phenomenological attitude you could be a photographer. That is one way of seeing and saying it. It takes time to move from one to the other. A camera alone will not do it, that’s for sure. Eugen Herrigel spent 6 years of his life learning to become an archer. That is easy compared. He even had to go to Japan to learn it. Don’t for one second believe that it will take less time to become a photographer.  If you have it in you at all. Wax on, wax off, that is the basic training you need to do. Remember Karate Kid? Sorry, I am getting off track here./smiling/

It sounds like that, yes, but I like it anyway. Who is Eugen Herrigel, by the way? Maybe we can come back to that another time?

What then is a STING in a photograph? I will answer that myself since time is now running. A STING in a picture is that little something that moves a picture from being plain documentation to being something on another level. I mean, pure documentation is alright if that is what you are after. But plain documentation does seldom arrest people. Documentation with a STING does arrest people. In street photography that is, for me, what it is all about. STINGS does not come by itself by the way. You help placing the needle. That is when picturetaking becomes photography. Time is up, by the way.

Ok, ok, I am off. I will come back for more STINGS another day then. Would that be ok? One last question though. The picture you have wanted to show at the beginning of this post, has that got STING.

I think so. The STING there is first and foremost the flying dutchman in the background, but it is also the contrast to the down to earth situation in the foreground: the kids and the photographer. It is all held together by the composition. Not only held together, but stressed and underlined by the composition. Would you not agree?

/Smiling/ Let me think about it. Now let’s have coffee.

/Smiling/ Yes, let’s. What coffee do you want?


Corrections to this article will be made.

The expression STING has also been used by Roland Barthes.

Moments Sticks

The more I occupy myself with these areas, phenomenology and photography, the more they seem to interconnect.

I should have recognized this a long time ago, but I am afraid it only occurred to me recently. Simple things sometimes mature slowly. It goes like this: The notion moment is essential to both phenomenology and photography.

All of us, interested in photography, have heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moments as described in his famous book from 1952. I am not going to repeat that story here since it is already on this blog.

Considerable fewer of us know that a moment also is a central theme in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology.

It goes like this: Phenomenology deals, among many other things, with parts and wholes. Parts comes in two types: Pieces and moments.

If I have a framed picture, and that picture is a photograph, the framed picture could consist of a) a piece of glass, b) a wooden painted frame, c) white passepartout, d) a back plate to support and stabilize it all, and e) possible some nails, tape or glue to hold it all together.

These parts are all pieces. They are independent parts.

Independent parts are parts that can be dismantled. They have, as one of their characteristics,  the ability to live their own life after being dismantled from the picture. Pieces don’t stick.

There is, however, also another type of parts involved. These parts are moments. Moments are dependent parts. They do not live their own life after being dismantled. In fact, they cannot be dismantled at all. Moments sticks.

Have a look at the picture above. Moments are e.g. the light and shadow in the black and white print, the identification of some of the combinations of light and shadows as human beings, stairs, shoes, legs, stone, etcetera. Try take those parts apart and discover that such a thing is not possible.

Here is a very important type of moments: All those parts that are not seen in the photograph. You see only parts of two women, yet you know that the rest is there. You see only parts of a staircase, yet you know the rest is there too. These moment sticks.

He is my point: If you combine the photographic moments with the phenomenological moments, there opens up a wholly new road of understanding photography. Simple as that.

What are the implications of this? Let me come back to that. They are huge.

I will leave is there, since this blog is also a notebook. I just made a note.

Have a good day.

By the way, you may want to chick the image above. Just to see where it takes you.

A Book For Reading Photographers.

Being And Nothingness. © Knut Skjærven.

I have been looking for a text like this. It had to be out there somewhere.

Roaming the internet this morning, I found it. The book: Augenblick.

A combined search for Sartre and Cartier-Bresson brought it to the surface. First names Jean-Paul and Henri. I am sure you have heard of them. The first one is often described as the philosopher of the 20th century. The second often as the photographers of the very same century.

Same city, different tools. Paris.

I knew that there must be more to this connection than a photograph taken on a bridge in Paris in 1946.

The book does not deal only with Sartre and Cartier-Bresson, but they are both in there. Sartre gets occasional mentions. There is a whole chapter on Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment.  Augenblick deals with many more people within, or linked to, the tradition of phenomenology, e.g. Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. Even beyond that tradition.  Go read for yourself.

Let’s make this short. Augenblick is a book written by Australian Koral Ward. The subtitle is The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19th- and 20th Century Western Philosophy. For a blog titled Phenomenology and Photograph this is spot on.

If you are a reading photographer, you will probably enjoy this book. If you are a fan of decisive moments photography and phenomenology, you don’t want to miss it. But you got to be a reading photographer. Even heavily equipped snap shooting will not do for this book.

You get a good understanding of what this is all about by clicking this link. Good luck with it.

Augenblick means the blinking of an eye. So that’s it then.

Have a good day.

The Interview: Question Three.

Send In The Clowns. © Knut Skjærven.


Let’s move on if that is ok with you?

I have read your blog, or should I say blogs. I particularly refer to certain passages and, what should I say, indications that you seem to come with more than one time. I find them, for instance, in barebones communication, your first blog that deals with photography. Among many other things. You started that in November 2007.

You say, or at least indicate, that there is an affinity between phenomenology and photography. I understand that it was thoughts like that led to the making of the present blog.

I find it fascinating that you also seem to indicate there is a type of affinity even between phenomenology and black and white photography. You even take it so far as to you say that this affinity can be shown in the some of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

So my question is simple is if you would be willing to elaborate on this? I can’t see that you have done that anywhere else?


Yes, it is true that I have indicated that. It is also true that I have until now, not done much about explaining it. The reason is simple that it is complicated. I don’t think I am finished elaborating on it either. But ok, I will give it a try. It is good that you push this question. However, please look at this as a preliminary answer. I may come back and change and add to it another time.

You know that phenomenology says that man mostly operated in the natural attitude. The natural attitude has a practical and a scientific dimension.

The practical dimension has to do with our life-world where all our daily, practical experiences and doings take place. This interview, for instance, happens in the natural attitude. You and I talk together in a life-words setting.

Phenomenology, however, also deals with a phenomenological attitude. Please note that I say too. It is not a question of leaving the natural attitude and move into another sphere. Nothing strange about it at all.

The phenomenological attitude carries different names, but here I will simple call it the phenomenological attitude.

In the phenomenological attitude you arrest whatever you are occupied with in the natural attitude. Phenomenology calls this to bracket the world. The world is still there, but you set it out of play so you can have a closer look at it. That is a phenomenological approach and a phenomenological investigation. Much like a photographer arrests a life word incident by pressing the shutter on her/his camera.

Now why would anyone want to make an arrest as this?  Obviously to get a better understanding of it. You detain the incident for a moment to see what makes it up.

What makes it up reveals it self as, what I will call, structures of consciousness. These structures of consciousness are the heart of the matter for phenomenology. Unfolding them and understanding them are what phenomenology is all about.

Let me take an example: At this very moment I am concentrated on this interview. I think and I speak and this activity is directed towards you as an interviewer. The activity is at the core of my attention. When I operate within the natural attitude, in the life-world, that is all I need to know. It is all that you need to know about this situation, as well. We agree on this and we understand each other

When I arrest this simple situation another and much more varied and complex picture turns up. Not that it is more difficult once you get a grip of it.  This is the move from one attitude to another. Like having a different pair of glasses on. I get to know, for instance, that this, as any other moment, is carried by my consciousness. That consciousness is like a web with threads spread all over. It links to a future, it links to a past, it links to an outer world, it links to an inner world, it links to your world, as well.  In the natural attitude all this is taken for granted or not questioned. In the phenomenological attitude you investigate these structures of consciousness.

Apply this to photography and you get an amazing way of seeing. Take pictures in the natural attitude you will get what is there. Take pictures in the phenomenological attitude and you will even get what is not there.

You could say that photography in the natural attitude is all about taking pictures of physical things. Photography in the phenomenological attitude is all about  taking pictures of relations.

Look at the photograph that comes with this post, as well as the photograph that came with the former post. First and foremost they are pictures of relations. That is what I try do to with my photography.

Are you with me?


(Silence) Let’s have a short break, and continue this session a bit later. Would that be ok?

The Interview: Question One.

The Artless Art.© Knut Skjærven


Before we start this interview, and let’s say, some of our readers took an interest in this area, are there any books that you would recommend? Let’s face it, a discipline like phenomenology is not something all our readers have for breakfast. It is difficult enough to pronounce the word. What would you recommend? Only ONE book.


Hmm, now I could pretend that this was a very difficult question, but it is not. It took me more than 20 years to realize that everything that has to do with phenomenology is really very simple and straightforward. I will come back to that later, but if you ask me to recommend one, and only one, book to get a feel of it, I have no other choice than to tell you that that book is called: Introduction to Phenomenology. It is written by an American named Robert Sokolowski.

I found this book by accident some years ago at my old university in Bergen, Norway. It is very, very good. It is not quite there yet, but it is close. Read that, read it once more, and read it many more times. Till you get the feel of it. This book has nothing to do with photography, but it gives you what you need at the moment concerning phenomenology. Even that is not an easy book if you know nothing about phenomenology. Remember that understanding phenomenology demands that you refresh your brain a bit. Many people are not used to that (smiling).

Most people misses the point of phenomenology. This goes particularly for university people. They think that phenomenology is something you read in books. This might very well be so in the beginning, but basically phenomenology is something YOU DO. It it even a lifestyle. A lifestyle of observing, describing and acting accordingly. Very similar to photography, in fact.

Then, as a SECOND book I would get a copy of Jean-Pierre Montier’s: Henri Cartier- Bresson: Seine Kunst – Sin Leben. Find the English version. It is called The Artless Art. Read it and study the pictures. I will tell you later why this is such a good match.

But If you only want one book at this stage, it got to be Sokolowski’s.

Can Cropping Save An Image?

Synchronous Smoking.© Knut Skjærven.

I just want to direct you to a post written by Adam Marelli: Can Cropping Save An Image?

I asked a question on Facebook not long ago about which was generally better: a square crop or a rectangular crop?That question led to a discussion about The Golden Rectangle and its use in photography.

The discussion generated a lot of answers, but basically waters were divided. Some liked the mother, others preferred the daughter.

Adam Marelli asked me if he could do an analysis on the photos in question, and he has now publishes the first part of that analysis on his website. The last part of his analysis will be published Friday 6, 2011. Tomorrow.

For me this is a new way of looking at, and analyzing,  photographs. This stuff is groundbreaking even for many other photographers. The inspiration is, once again, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He followed strict, classical rules of composition in almost all of his shots. And he did that with great success, as we all know.

Enjoy Adam Marelli’s brilliant analysis. Have a good day.

Oh, the picture above is not the picture analyzed by Adam Marelli. Go see his post.

Cartier-Bresson and Zen

Tonal Range. © 2008: Knut Skjærven.

In the history of photography French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson plays a special role. Not only are many of his photographs a delight  to look at and to study, but Cartier-Bresson also had a good grip on what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. He wrote about his photography.

The book giving the best overview of his thoughts on photography is The Minds Eye. I have the version from 1999, published by Aperture.

In this book, as in other contexts, Cartier-Bresson suggest that he does not consider himself as a photographer at all, but as one whose main task it simply is to be attentive to life. His main art form he considered to be drawing. For Cartier-Bresson photography was only a quicker way to do things.

If you want to understand a bit more about what this attention to life might mean, a good place to start is within Buddhism. Cartier-Bresson is said to be a Buddhist at least part of his life. I started to look around for sources that might enlighten me in this matter.

By a simple search on Google, I was pointed to an article on the subject. The article is Henri Cartier Bresson Zen Buddhist? It is written by British photographer and photojournalist, Ben Wyeth. Go see his site here.

The story ends here. Or is starts here. Depends.  As it is Friday: Have a nice weekend. Enjoy the article.

Many thanks, Ben.

Decisive Moments: How Many Are There?

Sporting Life. © Knut Skjærven.

From time to time I read in the little, brilliant book by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.

There are many reasons for that. One of them is that it is the only book that holds all the major texts explaining what Cartier-Bresson understood by “decisive moments”. Most important in that respect are his introduction to “The Decisive Moment” from 1952, and his introduction to “Europeans” from 1998. The original French version of the latter being from 1955.

This time, however, I am doing a tandem read. Alongside Cartier-Bresson’s original texts I read the extensive introduction to the photographer and his work by Peter Galassi in his recent book “Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Modern Century”. It was published for the opening of the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at MoMA in New York earlier this year.

Peter Galassi is no doubt one of the people that knows the most about his former friend Henri Cartier-Bresson.  His extensive knowledge of the works and thoughts of Cartier-Bresson shines through in the introduction and are, most certainly, a very enjoyable read.

Here are a couple of things from Galassi’s book that I have made notes of this far:

First note: Peter Galassi makes a distinction between Carties-Bresson’s pre-war and post-war photography. He sais:

“If many of Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs are collages ripped from the fabric of the street, the model of his postwar style is just the opposite: no matter how busy or calm the actual circumstance may have been, the image functions as a nicely proportioned stage on which a few figures have gathered to enact a tableau vivante. Like well-trained actors, they never turn their backs to the audience, and their faces and gestures are models of expressive clarity. The frame, like a proscenium, encloses the action and reveals it to the audience.” (41)

Second note: Peter Galassi operates with two different notions of “decisive moments”.  He sais:

“In such a photograph, there are two quite distinct decisive moments, as Cartier-Bresson suggested in his famous formulation: “To me, photography 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 which give that event its proper expression.” (45)

The last sentences fall in a context where Galassi is discussing a famous photograph by Cartier-Bresson shot at Dessau concentration camp in Germany just after the liberation in 1945. A woman is about to slam her hand into the face of what might be a former German collaborator. The photograph is shot just in that “decisive moment” when events are to unfold. See the photograph.

Galassi then suggests that there are two decisive moments simultaneously at work here. The first being the decisive moment of the event. The event is in itself significant. It is decisive.

The event, however, is quite separate from being photographed or not. Meaning that the event would unfold even if there were no spectators to it. Much less a photographer present.

Let us just hold on to the distinction at present. One decisive moment, then, is the event itself, the other one is the photographer’s recording of it.

Let’s have a look at the photograph at the top of this post to discuss this a bit further.

What you see in the photograph above is a young couple “sitting” of a bench, embracing. In the background there is a jogger stretching out. All are in somewhat awkward bodily positions captured by the photographer “in a fraction of a second”.

Peter Galassi would probably have it this way: There are two decisive moments at work here. First (decisive moment 1) there is the decisive event that is a decisive moment in itself whether observed, photographer or not. Roughly speaking, this event is the three people present in the photograph in their different bodily positions.

Then (decisive moment 2) there is the decisive moment in the photograph, meaning that a photographer was present during the decisive event, and he managed to take the photograph from a reasonable vantage point – at the right time. Roughly speaking, this is a combination of camera settings, photographers spot when shooting, and his more specific vantage point (high, low, et cetera).

Getting complicated? Yes, I think it is.

I will leave this note here. I need to discuss the continuation of this post with myself for a time before I finish it. The reason is that I am not quite convinced that this distinction is one that you want to do have at all. However, I am not sure about how to handle the argument. So you need to be patient. From a phenomenological point of view, the distinction could be problematic, hmm …

Then again Peter Galassi might be perfectly right in his statements.

Anyway, both books are incredible reads. Galassi’s book contains the best introduction to the world of Henri Cartier-Bresson that I have ever laid hands on. The pictures, and prints, are absolutely beautiful.

A decisive event, that’s what it is :-).

Don’t forget to visit Berlin Black and White and Photos of the Danes and Barebones Communication. There you will find much more of the same.

Have a good day.

Here are the books mentioned in this post. The numbers in brackets are references to pages in Galassi’s book.

Library Thing: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye.

Library Thing:  Peter Galassi: Henri Cartier-Bresson.


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