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.
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.
Earlier today I found information about a new book. The title is Bild als Prozess. Neue Perspectiven einer Phänomenologie des Sehens. The book is published by Verlag Köningshausen and Neumann, Germany.
The title seems appropriate for those interested in phenomenology and pictures, at least. If it explicitly deals with photography, remains to be seen.
These are the people behind the book: “Die Herausgeber Adriano Fabris ist Professor für Moralphilosophie und Kommunikationsethik an der Universität Pisa. Annamaria Lossi ist promovierte Philosophin. Ugo Perone ist Professor für Religionsphilosophie an der Universität in Turin.”
Anyway, good luck with it.
The picture above has nothing to do with the book, but it is showing photography as a process :-).
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 :-).
Have a good day.
Here are the books mentioned in this post. The numbers in brackets are references to pages in Galassi’s book.
There are a couple of statements that are “a must” for everyone who deals with phenomenology and photography. The statements are made by Edmund Husserl, and found in the text for the winter semester lectures held in 1904-1905. He gave these lectures in Göttingen, Germany.
Speaking about perception, images, phantasy and memory he moves into the area of physical images. In chapter two of the lectures he speaks about physical images, and even about photographs.The situation is, as he says, “somewhat more complicated” (20)
“For example, there lies before us a photograph representing a child.” (20) Husserl continues by stating that we, in fact, deals with three object:
“We have three objects: 1) the physical image, the physical thing made from canvas, marble and so on; 2) the representing or depicting object; and 3) the represented or depicted object. For the latter we prefer to say simply “image subject“; for the first object we prefer “physical image”; for the second, “representing image” or “image object”. (21)
Husserl deals with photographs as a particular type of image (or picture). What he says about images includes reference to painting, drawing, sculpture “and so on”. In that context he occasionally speaks explicitly about photography, and film.
Husserl’s statements imply the following for the photograph above:
The physical image is the combination of pixels that I perceive at my computer screen at this very moment. Likewise, what you perceive on your screen. Husserl did not, for obvious reasons, speak about screen images in 1904-1905.
If I want to manipulate the pixels I can do that in different image editors, or I can simply turn off the screen and the image will be gone.
If I print the image on paper, I can tear it up, lay it on my desk, place it upside down, hang it on the wall, or whatever.
The physical image is quite indifferent as to what is depicted (image subject) or what is depicting (image object).
The image subject is a particular spot at the wall memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin. Including the people and other physical objects, that were present.
The image object is what you would normally refer to as the picture or the photograph. It shows what it shows in the way it shows it. In this case the image object is a piece of a wall with some people in front of it. Different activities are observed. Is it a cropped picture where the composition plays an important part. It is a black and white picture. And so on …
Some would say that a picture, when the picture is a photograph, is merely a mechanical reproduction of what was in front of the lens when the release button was pressed. Certainly something was in front of the lens (and always is) when this photograph was taken, but a photograph is hardly a mere mechanical reproduction of an image subject.
Yes, it is a bit complicated. I am not sure if three objects will do it either. Since this is merely a note, however, I will leave it here.
Quotes are made from Edmund Husserl: Phantasy, Image, Consciousness, and Memory (1898-1925), translated by John B. Brough, Springer 2005. The numbers in brackets are reference to pages in the book. For full information on the book please see Library Thing.
What’s luck got to do with it? A lot, I would say. Being at the right place at the right time.
Last week I decided to start mapping out the best brains on phenomenology and photography. Not separately, but combined. Who are they, where are they, and what have they done that could be of interest for this project. What are they presently working on?
I started to ask around. It was my guess that the Husserl-Archives in Leuven, Belgium, would be one of the good places to start. They should know who is who, where and when.
I had a look at their web page, but that did not ring any immediate bells so I just roamed the site. And there it was: Professor John Brough (Georgetown University, Washington D.C.) was on his way to Leuven, Belgium, to do a guest lecture. (This was Thursday October 7, 2010.) The theme: The Curious Image: Husserlian Thoughts on Photography. To be held Monday 11 October, 17.00 – 19.00, Room C. I could even download a poster.
I know John Brough’s reputations already. He is the guy who translated Husserl’s Phantasie, Bildbewusstsein, Erinnerung (Husserliana Band XXXIII), which, I am ashamed to say, have owned for many years, but until recently never have done anything serious about. I bought the English translation by Brough a couple of years back, and was actually re-reading his brilliant introduction, when I found out about the guest lecture in Belgium. I wanted to drive down (from Copenhagen, Denmark), but there was not much time to prepare. So I did not go.
Did you know, by the way, that you can read most of John Brough’s English translation, absolutely free of charge. On the net. Try it. You can definitely read the Introduction.
There is even more: Handbook of Phenomenological Aesthetics just came out. Edited by Hans Rainer Sepp and Lester Embree. I am the lucky owner of one copy. Professor Brough has two articles in the book. The first one is titled: Edmund Husserl (1859 -1938), and the second one is on Representation. Both are good reads on the way to photography.
The common view is that Husserl said very little about photography. I don’t hold that opinion.
That is, basically, what I wanted to tell you. I am really looking forward to reading John Brough’s guest lecture on Husserl’s curious image. Once it is ready for publishing. I will probably write about it too. If I am right, the lecture definitely fills a gap.
Should I say that I am eagerly curious, or is that too banal?
NB: The photograph above has nothing to do with the lecture. It has been inserted for visual purposes, by the blog author. Go here for more photographs.
“The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the realities. It is not for me to separate off, in the complex fabric of the objective world, here a reflection on a damp sidewalk, there the gesture of a child. Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love. By the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can know, nature at last does more then imitate art: she imitates the artist.”
André Bazin: The Ontology of the Photographic Image, in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Leete’s Island Books, New Haven 1980, page 242.
“Of course it is impossible to separate thinking from acting; in any practice of photography, in any single picture produced by a camera, there is already an idea of the function, the character, the limits of the medium.”
Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Leete’s Island Books, New Haven 1980, Introduction, p. vii.