a blog by knut skjærven

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).


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