Exercise 5.3 Looking at photography


‘When somebody sees something and experiences it – that’s when art happens’
(Hans-Peter Feldman)

If photography is an event then looking at photography should also be an event.
Look again at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in Part Three. (If you can get to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London you can see an original print
on permanent display in the Photography Gallery.) Is there a single element in the image that you could say is the pivotal ‘point’ to which the eye returns again and again? What information does this ‘point’ contain? Remember that a point is not a shape. It may be a place, or even a ‘discontinuity’ – a gap. The most important thing though is not to try to guess the ‘right answer’ but to make a creative response, to articulate your ‘personal voice’.

Include a short response to Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in your learning log. You can be as imaginative as you like. In order to contextualise your discussion, you might want to include one or two of your own shots, and you may wish to refer to Rinko Kawauchi’s photograph mentioned above or the Theatres series by Hiroshi Sugimoto discussed in Part Three. Write about 300 words.

Fig.1 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932)

For me the man in the background is the place that my eye first goes, then to the man jumping, and back again to the man in the background. I am more intrigued by him than the one in the foreground.

The original image has been cropped, something that Cartier-Bresson rarely did but because there were planks around the area he didn’t have a clear view (Fig.2). It appears to have been cropped top, bottom and left.

Fig.2 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932)

There are so many things to look at in the image (cropped or otherwise) from the man about to land in the water, the ladder being synonymous with railway tracks, the items in the water making interesting shapes, areas of dark and light, the poster on the wall mirroring the figure jumping and man in the background, the poster advertising a circus called Railowsky, a clue to the location (railway station). From what I can discover, in 1932 this part of the bridge was being worked on, and it was sectioned off in order to complete the work. Does this mean that both men were workers? I had always assumed the man jumping was a commuter rushing for a train! The man in the background looks like a worker but I’m only basing this on what he looks like. There is what looks like a shovel lying at his feet. The photo isn’t clear enough to really see detail so I may be completely wrong. Did he ever know that he features in one of Cartier-Bressons most iconic images? Did either of them know? The man in the background appears to be watching a train going under the bridge but again I am assuming that the light area on the right is smoke coming from a steam engine. I bit of research using Google Earth uncovered the location of the photograph and in fact it is indeed a bridge with trains going under it. The location itself seems to have changed very little (Fig.5)

Fig.5 Google earth

Cartier-Bresson’s image is without doubt intriguing and taking into consideration he took it in 1932 it is not surprising that it has become such an iconic image.
No matter what else I look at within the frame my eyes still bounce between the two men, always coming back to the man in the background and wanting to know more. I think even when images are created to illicit a particular feeling or emotion, or to lead the eye, for some people, their own personality, interests or feelings will outweigh the intent of the artist and and become centred on a part of the image that perhaps wasn’t the intent in the first place. Without context or narration an image can become the visual representation of the viewer’s current emotions. This perhaps is all part of the idea of photographs, and context an additional element?

The front cover of Rinko Kawauchi’s book Illuminance, there is a photograph of an overexposed flower (Fig.3). This square image has no movement as such. Without doubt the  pivotal point is the very brightly lit flower, and how often in nature we see things in such a away and not how they are portrayed in their perfectly exposed detail. In the Theatres series by Hiroshi Sugimoto (Fig.4) the pivotal point is the bright white screen along with perhaps the curiosity brought about by wondering what the movie was! The shutter was opened at the start of the movie and closed at the end. There is a complete event hidden within in the bright space. Whilst researching Sugimoto’s theatre images it struck me that when a person sits in a cinema and watches a movie, they come away with thoughts, memories and pictures in their head. Perhaps there was a particular shot or words that stuck with them. In Sugimoto’s images, even though every part of the movies has reached the camera lens as it would with the human eye there is effectively nothing left. After the lens there is nothing, until the human eye sees it again in print or screen.

Fig.3 Rinko Kawauchi Illuminance

Fig.4 Hiroshi Sugimoto. Cinerama Dome, Hollywood. 1993


Figure 1. Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1932) Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris
At: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/98333
[Accessed 15/09/2019]

Figure 2. Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1932) Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris
At: https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/derriere-la-gare-saint-lazare/
[Accessed 20/02/2020]

Figure 3. Rinko Kawauchi Illuminance
[Accessed 20/02/2020]

Figure 4. Hiroshi Sugimoto. Cinerama Dome, Hollywood. 1993
[Accessed 20/02/2020]

Figure 5. Google earth
Copyright Google earth 2020
[Accessed 21/02/2020]


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