Friday, April 22, 2011

It's a Black and White World

I'd heard of Anselm Adams. Eliot Porter, yes.
Edward Steichen, of course,
but why not this man with the Leica?
It's as if I believed I knew a bit about physics and math and I'd never heard of Albert Einstein.

It's as if in the realm of the development of computer operating systems I was familiar with Bill Gates but not Steve Jobs.

Yes, that's how I felt after all these years of taking photographs and exulting over the exquisiteness of this art form whenever it is practiced at its highest level and then...

A friend came along and awoke me to the work of a photographer I'd never heard of.

What? I didn't know about Henri Cartier-Bresson?

Ce n'est pas possible!

HCB, as I prefer to call him for conciseness sake, worked in the medium of black and white film. As I've indicated, he is hardly an obscure figure. HCB, who died in 2004, has been called by some the 20th century's greatest photographer.

Yet it was only last year that the first full-scale exhibition of his work in the U.S. in nearly thirty years took place. 'The Modern Century" show opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (moving on thereafter to Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta).

So much has been written and said about HCB that there's no need for me to stir the pot further. I'd rather say what I've noticed about his photos and how they've impacted me of late.

Being Henri
HCB first looks with an eye that is drawn to an underlying order in the environment humans have surrounded themselves with. This order manifests itself in repetitions of lines, curves, triangles, squares, rectangles, etc. HCB's eye embraces tight geometry the way a sailor loves the wave tossed sea, a rancher craves the open range.

The other thing I notice is how HCB brings our eyes to bear upon a human subject who intrudes or leaps or freezes in the midst of the geometric feast. Spotting the person in the picture puts me as viewer in a unique position. I know something the person being photographed perhaps doesn't know.

First, the subject often doesn't know that his or her picture is being taken (many of HCB's most iconic photos appear to be taken surreptitiously from a distance). Second, they are not privy to the fact that they are standing in the midst of the geometric orderly arrangement the photographer has enclosed within his view finder. In this way, HCB places himself and his viewers in a special place of privilege.

In HCB's worldview, it almost always requires the human element to make the final piece of the geometry come together.

It's also possible for the human form itself to constitute the geometric moment of note.

When I look at a photo be HCB I find that he has gifted me with what I'd call a "god's eye." I can see the world the way the humans ordinarily can't. And it is good.

The 3-Minute HCB
So I was on this photo quest last weekend in a quaint little cowboy town where I was participating in a digital photography workshop. Toward the end of the day I thought, why not put away my digital SLR camera and switch to my compact point and shoot?

I had a further thought. I would set the camera on black and white mode and I'd rest my weary bones by sitting down on the curb and simultaneously try to capture the tourists as they passed by.

I would dabble in the genre called "street photography."

I held the camera at knee level pointing up so hopefully no one would realize that I was sitting there taking pictures of them.

It turned out that I only took three pictures. It was easy. People walked by, I squeezed the shutter release. I didn't really know what I had captured until I switched the camera from "record" mode to "play."

Okay. I'm no HCB. People's backsides, boring background. Nothing
too exciting or revelatory going on here.

Definitely better. Background much improved. I like the silhouetted
fingers, the clasping of the cup, the right angle of the elbow.
The slightly curvey body in contrast to the vertical of the pole is nice too.
But a tall, lean woman with half a head?

Ah! More like it! As the boy walks past he grabs the pole, and lifts his right foot off the ground. Why?
Because to a child "It is there, ergo I must grab it!" I didn't even know about this little moment until 
I downloaded the shot and examined it on my computer the next day.

On Not Being Henri
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a  giant. He took pictures that captured what he called "the decisive moment." In my puny case, the best I can do is seek the "haphazardous moment." That is, I hope by accident more than deliberate design to bring in something worthwhile through the lens.

But I don't think that should discourage me or anyone else. So I have to have many more tries before something emerges worth remarking upon? It's not an impossible approach. In fact, it could be a life's credo: take risks, live a lot, be willing to throw away much, especially our most foolish and mistaken behavior. Then, once we wash away the silt, we'll hope to find a few grains of gold sparkling at the bottom of the pan. - V.W.

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