Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1932): Analytical Paper

This photograph shows a silhouette of a man jumping off some scrap wood over a puddle. By the title, we know he is behind a train station in France, but there is nothing in the print to suggest it. Behind the man, we see another figure, a silhouette of a man standing. Behind him, a wrought-iron fence surrounds a cemetery. On the left side of the fence there are posters advertising for a circus, something about a “Railowsky”.

Following the eye through this photograph, it starts with the ladder directing the viewer to the white diamond shape between the legs. The eye then travels upward through the man’s body and to the left following the fence line, where we end up at the circus poster. Attention is now diverted to the reflection for a while, and then we notice details such as the cemetery and the various items near the standing man.

Before we can divulge into the meaning of this piece, we need to examine the photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. He is very famous for his French street photography, almost as much as for the phrase he coined, “the decisive moment”. Street photography is a very difficult genre, as you are trying to capture something extraordinary in everyday life. Composing an iconic photograph like this is a combination of luck and observational skills combined with intuition. While a painter may have days or even years to think about the position of his subjects in a painting, a photographer has mere fractions of seconds. Henri Cartier-Bresson apparently took this photograph through a peephole in a fence – no time to even look through the viewfinder. This is why I chose this particular print – it left me deeply impressed due to the serendipity needed to capture such a fleeting moment with great composition.

This print has arguably the most famous examples of a “decisive moment”; the silhouette is jumping over the puddle but his feet have yet to grace the surface – giving this photograph surrealist overtones that prompt questions about the water itself, such as depth. Surrealistic elements are rare in street photography, but the full silhouette in the reflection is incredibly surreal. The only point in time this photograph is interested in is now. The water is complacent, and we can see the reflections of the surroundings almost clearer than they appear in the print. Chiaroscuro, a technique with emphasis on light and shadow, also includes reflections of light. Almost half of the frame is dedicated to this reflection, we can ask, what is the importance of this? It adds aesthetically, to the print, with the white sky and water frame the band of shadow, creating symmetry. But a reflection can imply careful thought of past events, a considered idea, or an indication of the result of something.

The reflection also creates interesting shapes. The man’s silhouetted legs form a diamond shape around the almost-white water. The ladder-shaped wood points to this white space, directing even further attention. The wrought-iron fence provides interesting lines to the piece, and the reflection is a good use of these lines. The rule of thirds, or placing objects of interests at the intersections of these imaginary lines, is often used when composing a photograph. Evidence of this here includes the top of the wrought-iron fence with the skyline, and the position of the jumping man.

Focusing on the three silhouettes in the frame, notice another reflection of the position of the man jumping and the circus poster. They seem to be in almost the same pose, heading different directions. This strengthens the idea of repetition found all over the piece. The man, standing in the background, seems to counter this, as his pose is rather devoid of life comparatively to the vivacious position of the jumper. Observation shows that this man has his own pairing – of the cemetery he stands in front of, and the shape of the tombstones are similar to his head and shoulders. The juxtaposition of the jumping man and the circus poster compared with the standing man and the cemetery provides interesting viewing.

In conclusion, I believe that the main idea of this photograph is the concepts of reflection and time. This print wouldn’t hold as much prestige if it lacked either one. Timing is crucial and creates the mood of this image, fleeting spontaneity. Reflections enhance this and create a surrealist image and the hidden reflections of the other silhouettes create even more depth to this image.

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