Henri Cartier-Bresson: Paris Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts University of East Anglia 20th May 2016
Henri Cartier-Bresson has always been one of my favourite photographers and a couple of years ago, when I was studying the Art of Photography module I wrote a piece about his work. I was very pleased when the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, a relatively short journey from my home had an exhibition of his work featuring photographs of Paris that included some of his most famous images. In the past I, have looked at Cartier-Besson’s work in books and on the Internet but seeing the collection of prints in a gallery was a revelation in terms of the extra subtle details that are not immediately apparent in reproductions. As an example, Cartier-Besson’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare has always been a favourite of mine but having only seen it reproduced in books or on line I had always felt that some of the comments in criticisms of the picture were a little stretched. For example, in Train you gaze by Roswell Angier, one of the set books for this module, she discusses how the man leaping rhymes with the picture of the ballerina in the poster in the background. In the reproductions, I had seen this poster was barely visible but in the print in the exhibition it was very clear and the similarities between the poses jumped out at the viewer. Since attending the exhibition I found the image below which is a better reproduction in this respect than many others I have seen.
The images I and I suspect many others mentally associate with Cartier-Bresson are those of lovers in Parisian cafés and indeed there were a number of examples of this genre in the exhibition. I particularly like the one below with the woman wearing a typically French stripped top and the dog underneath the table staring upwards perhaps in expectation of being feed some titbit or at another level perhaps indicating it disapproval. Whatever the message Cartier-Bresson was trying to convey this is a good example of him capturing the ‘decisive moment’ if the dog wasn’t looking up at the woman in the way it is this would not be such a great image. A picture taken a few seconds before or after with the dog apparently lying asleep would not have anything like the same impact.
As another take of the theme of Parisian lovers I like the picture of the dogs below, again it captures just the right moment with the two dogs having sex and the other too dogs really not interested in what is going on we can see it as an allegory of the way humans tend to ignore behaviour they find embossing or rather than confronting it.
I really like the picture below taken in the infamous Citron factory in Paris where the 2CV was built, this factory was renowned as a place where a largely immigrant workforce produced cars in truly terrible conditions. To the extent that in later years Citron would not allow visitors of picture of the interior of the plant. I could not find a larger image of the is picture on the Internet but I particularly like the way Cartier-Bresson has captured the worker with his face hidden by the hanging vehicle parts which combined with the way he is slouching along giving him an almost robotic appearance.
The final picture I really liked is the one below of the three market traders, I see this as a picture of its time in that the three subjects are obviously posing for the camera and really trying to portray their best tough guy image. Today with everyone one taking pictures with mobile phone it would be hard to capture a picture like this. Due to the familiarity people have with cameras getting three traders like this interested in posing at the sometime would be almost impossible without some very elaborate planning and staging.
Overall I really enjoyed visiting this exhibition and I was disappointed that I could not get back to see it a second time before it ended. As I said at the beginning I had always admired Cartier-Bresson’s work and to have the opportunity to see some many examples of his work in one place was fascinating and really re-enforced to idea of capturing the decisive moment that Cartier-Bresson is famous for. After seeing the work I was motivated me to get out and take more street photographs but I must admit that I was so impressed by my results but I will keep trying.