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.
Training Sessions: See Street University.
Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.
Copyright: Knut Skjærven (text and picture).
It is a fascination notion. Maybe the most spectacular of them all. Speculative.
Ronald Barthes calls it photogenia and it is the fourth of his connotation procedures. But he does not really give you anything more than a clue as to what is to be understood by photogenia. He cleverly escapes the question by stating that “it will suffice to define photogenia in terms of informational structure. In photogenia the connoted message is the image itself, “embellishes” (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.”/23.
“The theory of photogenia”, he states, “has already been developed (by Edgar Morin in Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire) and this is not the place to take up again the subject of the general signification of that procedure”./23
Thank you Mr. Barthes. Thank you for this extensive explanation.
That is where he leaves his readers, in nowhere land.
What, however, after all is important is the clue that he gives you: in photogenia the connoted message is the image itself. I need to dive into the sources if I want a grip on this idea. And that is just what I will do. Therefore, I will come back with an update on photogenia. Pretty soon.
In the meantime you can work with me in solving the mystery of photogenia. Here is a sentence from an article by Jean Epstein called “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”. It goes like this: “What is photogénie? I would describe as photogenic any aspects of things, being, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction”.
Yes, Epstein talks about filmic reproduction, but we will talk about photography. I’ll be back soon.
Relates posts in this section: Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.
Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.
As you probably know by now these post are written for the blog: Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The blog is under development but not public yet. Stay tuned. Have a very good day :-). Thanks for reading.
IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.
The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are. This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned.
The second connotations procedure Roland Barthes mentions is Pose.
He talks about people pose which suits us well since we define street photography as having people as the distinct and bearing element. Barthes’ example is a portrait of President Kennedy. The example in this post is far from it. More on that below.
Let’s listen to what he says and expand on the theme just as we did in the post on Trick Effects.
Barthes:”Consider a press photograph of President Kennedy widely distributed at the time of the 1960 election: a half-length profile shot, yes looking upwards, hands joined together. Here it is the very pose of the subject which prepares the reading of the signifieds of connotation: youthfulness, spirituality, purity.”
A bit later in the same text: “The message in the present instance is not “the pose” but “Kennedy praying”: the reader receives as a simple denotation what is in actual fact a double structure – denoted-connoted.”/Page 22.
No one would argue that a shot like that was anyway near what we would want to do in street photography, but it stresses what pose is and what it can bring in terms of connotations. Pose is the direct or indirect arrangement of a scene to be photographed. Like setting up President Kennedy in the shot mentioned. Like setting up anything else under any circumstance you can think of. Pose is a broad and very important thing in any type of photography.
So also in street photography.
It is a good idea to dishinguish between three types of poses. First there is the posed pose, then there is the unposed pose and finally there is the provoked pose.
For the photographer the different is that in the posed pose he directs the person or the people in question. Like in a studio he sets the light, brings the chair or whatever to sit on, etcetera. In professional cases such posing might well include laying the makeup and setting the hair. Male of female. For the street photographer the pendent would be that he asks people to take on a certain bodily pose, move to a certain location, etcetera.
The provoked pose is when you call indirect attention from people and you by that get them to act in certain way based on such a provocation. Could be that you in a street set up your tripod and photographed people when they came looking and wondered what you were doing. Could be you wanted to shoot people in their face using a flashgun. The last variant seems to be popular and would be a direct provocation quite literally.
These are three different ways of doing street photography sure, but the way we in Street Photographer’s Toolbox understand it is photography as unposed pose. In other words: Cases where you do not directly interact with the people you want to picture. No before you take the picture.
Maybe you say that unposed pose is an awkward expression? I agree with you. The reason why it is a good idea to use it is that is stresses the obvious fact the all photography to a certain extent is posed photography. Already being there as a photographer under a certain sky; in a special location; at a time of day or night you have partly decided/posed the content of the shot. Call it pre-posing. You may not interact with people themselves but you model everything else. And by setting the camera you model that too.
All the decision you make in this respect have influence on the connoted content you will end up with. You may think that you are there as a spectator alone and that you render untouched reality. That is not the case I am afraid, but you can do your very best as a photographer of unposed poses. That will have to do because there is no other way.
Such a thing as a street photography untouched by man does not exist. By the way, the photograph above, K-damm Couple, is unposed pose, but not quite. I asked the girl to look into the camera, and that little gesture makes a big different. You might say that I was stretching the rules a bit. Hopefully Barthes would have liked it.
Thanks for reading.
Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.