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).