Category Archives: Books Read

Henri Cartier-Bresson – The Mind’s Eye Writings on Photography and Photographers

Read 21 May 2019

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French Photographer and a founding member of Magnum Photos.

In this book he has written about his development as a photographer, experiences on some of his assignments and his about friends and acquaintances .

The first part of the book is dedicated to his development as a photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson works through each stage of the process from, The Picture-story, The subject, Composition, Colour, Technique (developing the photographs), The Customers. He finished off this part with a couple of paragraphs on colour photography which was still quite limited at the time.

I found this first part of the book is extremely thought provoking for someone starting out in the field.

The chapter I found particularly interesting is ‘The Picture Story’. This is quite insightful and helpful as this is one aspect that I have been struggling with. I suspect I will be rereading this a few times.

Henri Cartier-Bresson explains that when he started out as an amateur photographer he didn’t think about telling a story with a sequence of photographs stating:

‘The idea of making a photographic reportage, that is to say, of telling a story in a sequence of pictures, never entered my head at the time.

Cartier-Bresson H 1996:22

He explains that it wasn’t until he started looking at illustrated magazines together along with the work of his colleagues, that he started to learn how to put a picture-story/reportage together. Henri Cartier-Bresson goes through the elements that he feels brings a photographic series together. He explains that there are two kinds of selections to be made during this process. The first being the selection you make through the viewfinder when taking the photographs, and the second is to separate the weakest photographs once the film has been developed.

‘… if it is possible to make pictures of the “core” as well as the struck-off sparks of the subject, this is a picture-story. The page serves to reunite the complementary elements which are dispersed throughout several photographs’

Cartier-Bresson H 1996:23

One thing that Henri Cartier-Bresson warns against when taking photographs it not to let your eye or mind wonder. You must stay concentrated on the scene so that you capture the elements that portray the story and not to try and manipulate what is in front of you.

‘We must not manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor manipulate the results in the darkroom.’

Cartier-Bresson H 1996:27

The second section of the book made for fascinating reading about his experience photographing in Cuba and Moscow. Henri-Cartier-Bresson is very descriptive in his writing about the people he met, creating a good image in ones minds eye.

The third section of the book is about Henri Cartier-Bressons friends and acquaintances, which is quite interesting learning how they all supported one another.

Bibliography

Cartier-Bresson H
(1999)
The Mind’s Eye Writings on Photography and Photographers
11th Edition
Aperture

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Walker Evans

I began my research into Walker Evans, by reading ‘Walker Evans American Photographs’.  At first glance, it appears that the images that Walker Evans has captured show the harsh reality of the Great Depression in the South of America.  There appears to be an emotional detachment from Evans in order to capture the stark reality, a certain type of truth in his images.

The image that particularly invokes the plight of Southern Sharecroppers hit by the Great Depression is ’16 CHILD IN BACK YARD, 1932’.  You initially see a child watching something in the background that we are not privy to.  However, on closer inspection you see how tired the girl looks with the bags under her eyes, the torn clothes she is wearing showing a certain degree of poverty.  The composition of the image plays a part in this also, drawing your eye to straight to the girl in the first two thirds of the frame and then to the last third with a drawing on the side of the door that looks like it has been drawn in the dust.  There does not appear to be any attempt in staging the girl for the photograph, but rather capturing a natural moment in time.

Walker Evans is known for his style of detachment and record of the subject.  Throughout the black and white images he has used the same tone and aesthetic throughout.  This encouraged me to view the images for its contents.  There appears to be an unabated truth about the images.  After reading the book I watched a lecture on Youtube by John Tagg hosted by YaleBritishArt titled “Knocking around between money, sex, and boredom”: Walker Evans in Havana and New York.

For the first part of the lecture, John Tagg concentrates on one image in American Photographs ‘43 HUDSON STREET BOARDING HOUSE DETAIL, NEW YORK, 1931’.  In his lecture John Tagg explains that this title was crossed out in the archives of MOMA and replaced with ‘Rooming House Bedroom in New York 1933’.  With this simple change in title the image takes on a different meaning.

Prior to being made aware of the title change, the image appears to be documenting a simple, austere room during The Great Depression when most could not afford luxuries.  Upon closer inspection this is reflected by the torn bed linen, worn bedframe and simple stool which has been cropped on the right side of the frame.

However, once you learn that this may in actual fact be a bedroom in a rooming house, your perception is slightly differently. 

http://www.getty.edu/museum/media/images/web/enlarge/05233301.jpg

Fig 1.
43 Hudson Street Boarding House Detail, New York, 1931
(1931)

John Tagg explains that Rooming houses provided cheap, minimally supervised accommodation where residents provided each other with a degree of privacy.  The rooms were simple with minimal furniture.   Due to their simplicity and anonymity, this made them popular with gay men, men without a secure job who would need to be able to leave easily should they get work elsewhere, and those that may need to leave quickly due to legal problems.   Knowing this alters your perception of the room slightly.  This is not an austere room due to the depression, but a simple room that met/suited the needs and requirement of its lodgers. 

John Tagg goes on to explain that John Cheever’s daughter recalls her father saying that Evans ‘took the photograph because he couldn’t believe anyone could live in such a miserable place’ (Tagg J 2017).  This begs the question, is Walker Evans showing the unabated truth, or what he sees as the truth, or what he wishes to portray?  When you do a search of this image, you can find an uncropped version, which shows a chest of draws on the right side of the frame.  Walker Evans has cropped this out of the final image that is in the book, making the room seem barer than it actually is.

https://collectionapi.metmuseum.org/api/collection/v1/iiif/275342/570281/main-image

Fig 2.
Bedroom in Boarding House on Hudson Street, Residence of John Cheever, New York City, 1931–33
(1931-33)

You will also find a photograph, which appears to be of the same room, but looking in the opposite direction.  In this image, the room does not appear so stark.

https://collectionapi.metmuseum.org/api/collection/v1/iiif/275231/570183/main-image

Fig 3.
Bedroom Interior with Table and Chair in Boarding House on Hudson Street, Residence of John Cheever, New York City, 1931–33
(1931-33)

After learning the above and viewing the uncropped image, this shows that a simple change in frame, angle or crop can give a scene a whole new meaning and is just as important as the scene itself.

Bibliography

Fig 1.
Evans W
(1931)
43 Hudson Street Boarding House Detail, New York, 1931
[Photograph]
In The Museum of Modern Art
(2016)
Walker Evans American Photographs
Plate 43

Fig 2.
Evans W
(1931-33)
Bedroom in Boarding House on Hudson Street, Residence of John Cheever, New York City, 1931–33
[Photograph]
https://collectionapi.metmuseum.org/api/collection/v1/iiif/275342/570281/main-image
(accessed on 16th April)


Fig 3.
Evans W
(1931-33)
Bedroom Interior with Table and Chair in Boarding House on Hudson Street, Residence of John Cheever, New York City, 1931–33
[Photograph]
https://collectionapi.metmuseum.org/api/collection/v1/iiif/275231/570183/main-image
(accessed on 16th April)

The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Published 2016 
Walker Evans American Photographs
Italy
The Museum of Modern Art

Eugene Atget – Paris

Eugene Atget was a French photographer who only became prominent after his death in 1927. This is largely thanks to Berenice Abbott, who first produced a portfolio of his work in 1929, two years after is death, containing 20 prints

Atget did not see his photography as works of Art, but rather documents, as described within the book:

‘Man Ray immediately grasped the intense yet discreet poetry that emanated fro these images devoid of any artifice. To his decleration of enthusiasm for these “works of art,” Atget replied that they “are just documents”.’ (Gautrand 2016:17)

Atget did not start working as a photographer until he was 40, following a unsuccessful career as an actor and then a painter. It was due to his acquaintances with Artists in Montparnesse, that he learnt painters used photographs as a memory aid or documentation of a scene/object/building for their paintings. As a result in 1890 Atget picked up a camera and hung a sign above is door stating ‘Documents for Artists’. He used an 18×24 cm bellow camera for his work, although at the time Kodak had brought out a more portable camera. It is not known why he used the bellow camera over the Kodak, whether this was out of preference or affordability.

Because Atget saw his photographs as documents, which turned into an obsession with photographing and cataloguing Old Paris before it disappeared, his photographs contain tremendous detail which now takes you on a virtual tour of a bygone era. Paris was going through a large regeneration at the time with the advancements in engineering, although he was not interested in capturing this together with the modern architecture. Therefore, you will not see any images of the Eiffel Tower or Metro, which were either recently built or being built at the time.

Later on in Atgets career his photographs were also purchased by Museums and Libraries due to his meticulous documentation of the old parts of Paris that had disappeared.

Although Atgets intention was to document Paris and not capture the atmosphere he did unintentionally manage to also portray this.

Two good examples of this are:

‘La Conciergerie at la Seine en hiver’ (1923) page 72&73. The scene depicted in this photograph looks down a curve in the river Seine with a path running down the right side lined with canal boats and the the Concierge on the on the left. The photograph was taken in the morning and captures the morning mist coming off the water.
The line of the path along the river draws you into the image and you can feel the cold misty morning as you mentally walk along the path.

‘Boucherie aux Halles’ (c1900) page 64. Atget took the photograph looking at the corner of the shop positioned in the right third enabling you to view down both sides of the butchers with the meat hanging up outside. This scene reminds me of Borough Market on the South Bank of London and you can almost smell the distinctive smell of meat and sawdust associated to butcher shops.

Bibliography

Jean Claude Gautrand (E.D.)
Published 2016
Eugene Atget – Paris
Cologne
Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis