“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glace. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” – Henri Cartier Bresson.
I once met HCB, a few months before his death. He was at a gallery show in Paris where I’d stopped in. He, of course, was the center of attention while there, rightfully so; a legend in our field. Although, I must say, I’m conflicted about him. His photography is obviously one of the 20th century’s benchmarks. His written thoughts about what he did and how he did it – well, let’s just say I find a lot of it not helpful, the standard word-salad that comes along with any attempt to articulate the meaning of visual art, where the meaning is ultimately not reducable to language. You either get it or you don’t, and when you do it’s not capable of being articulated verbally.
I suppose what HCB is saying here is that a successful photograph is one where life offers us the form, we choose the content, and the goal is to fit in the content in a way that results in pleasing form. We “work in unison’ with the forms we’re presented to bring balance to the whole, modifying perspectives by moving a certain way, by coincidence of line etc. When successful, we produce a photograph that has both pleasing form and content. It’s interesting to me that HCB never really went further and talked about the role of content in the equation. In this respect he was a ‘Formalist’, someone whose aim was to produce a form that was pleasing to the eye. The content might as well be irrelevant. A guy on a bike, a kid with a jug of milk, a guy looking through a fence; all of it benign, pretty, not saying much except as it’s pleasing to the eye. And I think that it’s ultimately his failing as a photographer. His work is the equivilant of Muzak; it’s pleasing, but at a very superficial level. It ‘says’ nothing, really.
I think that’s why I prefer later photographers, those like Josef Koudelka who came after HCB, internalized his ideas about form but also chose content that had a message. Koudelka’s Gypsy photographs are of a magnitude of insight HCB could never aspire to. They are both beautiful formally and emotionally powerful via their subject matter while teaching us something as opposed to merely flattering the eye.
60’s ‘street photographers’ like Winogrand and Friedlander went in the opposite direction – a complete rejection of form for content. At least insofar as Winogrand is concerned, the content became a sort of joke – who could produce the most arresting content irrespective of whether it said anything of value. I think of Winogrand’s work as simply an extended joke, and attempt to produce manufactured photographic realities that produce strong emotional reactions in the viewer. Ultimately a party trick. Friedlander at least was saying something of value – extended meditations on American car culture and self – expression respectively.
I’ve lead off the piece with a photograph I’d taken in Paris. It has both pleasing form but also has content that (hopefully) speaks to something about the subjects involved and the photographer who took it. While it might have a bit of the vibe of an HCB photograph (Paris, street, candid, movement), it’s not something he would have taken, probably because its form isn’t strong enough on its own. But it does possess a content that says something – something about beauty, about the appeal of the beautiful, about how some people simply can’t see the beauty that surrounds us and walk right by it locked into the minutia of their daily existence, how others long for that beauty. That’s what makes it a good photo, and it’s also an analysis that Bresson would have missed, and why he’d have passed it by without another look.