“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.

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14 thoughts on “Composition

  1. Dan Newell

    I looked at HCB as kind of a “Clapton is God” deal, promoted by a bunch of people I was never going to meet and for some reason I was never going to fully agree with anyway.

    Besides that Robert Doisneau was around at the same time and doesn’t get the props HCB does which tells me what I need to know.

  2. Rob Campbell

    I often think that, really, the star has always been Paris itself.

    In similar fashion, it’s New York that gave the US its stars: both cities have so much of humanity on display, and as seems the case from my distant perch in the sticks of a Mediterranean island, photographers simply had to stake out a corner or a street crossing in order to get a parade of humanity in all its shapes and sizes passing right under their noses. Tim’s musings on Winogrand are, I think, close to what appears to be the current visual flavour of street coming from the various street sites that I sometimes look at when I feel there’s nothing much better to do. The images are basically no more interesting than you’d get from a surveillance camera, were it to slip down to street level for an hour or so; mobile Google rigs could do as much. Yet, when those pix are made and shown on videos hosted by various people with followings, they are lauded, and much ado about nothing ensues, inspiring more of the same, just like an infection.

    It could also be that those cities might have so much built-in mystique that the photographer actually buys into it, believes, and stuff happens. I only felt that – that I remember – once, in 1957 when my wife-to-be and I were in Rome: I was just twenty, and we were standing on the steps of that massive wedding cake monument, the Vittoriano, when I felt an overwhelming sense, in the low evening sunlight, of being in a place where any dream could come true. How I wish there had been a way to stay… my mother was living there, but to remain, with Ann, would have created mayhem across families and being under threat of military conscription until the age of twenty-six, if memory serves correctly, maybe the UK government might have had something to say about that. Damn it, it was the epoch of Cinecittà and all those Hollywood folks were making movies there, and afaik, only one Italian stills photographer in the business could speak English; syndication rights come to mind, cornered markets… but I was just a naïve kid on holiday with his girlfriend. In the event, we both went home, me to my factory and she her lab. (No, I would not have run workshops after the passing of the Italian golden age of movies.) 😉

    1. Dan Newell

      “Yet, when those pix are made and shown on videos hosted by various people with followings, they are lauded, and much ado about nothing ensues, inspiring more of the same, just like an infection.”

      But Rob…they are the Photo Gods! When they leave the house in the morning the brass band strikes up a John Phillip Sousa number and off they go. Alas, when I leave I only hear crow farts.

  3. Pierre Saget

    HCB is one of my favorite photographers and strongest inspirations, but I can’t really argue with the criticism that he took in everything with little differentiation, largely using people as geometric figures to be arranged rather than flesh and blood humans whose lived experiences, memories and emotions are to be observed and brought out by the photographer. As for Koudelka, Exiles is probably my favorite book period about a life lived on the road. There also seem to be some outtakes of Roma life in there that didn’t make the cut for G***ies, a book I have not yet picked up.

  4. Dogman

    I was late coming to photography–age 24, if I remember correctly. It was about 1972 and the whole world was into Photography as Art. Since I was green, I was into everything and everyone. But I didn’t get HCB at the time. That came years later after I got away from photography as a means to make a living, flushed my head out of the daily images I had seen and produced and started to look at the work of others really closely. And while HCB was a formalist in his framing of designs, within those designs was an innate humanity–pain, arrogance, fear and joy, etc. I sincerely fell in love with that picture of the little boy with a big bottle of wine and the biggest smile on his face I have ever seen. But that picture of the guy jumping over a puddle…not so much.

    Of course HCB wasn’t alone in this. Doisneau, Ronis, Boubat and many other French photographers were doing the same type of pictures of people doing their mundane activities. How come the mundane of daily life in the early to mid Twentieth Century looks so interesting today? I would love to be able to do those types of photos today but the world has changed, people have changed and I have changed.

    A few years back, I was showing some friends some photos I had done. The wife was an artist, the husband a psychologist. The psychologist asked how I had made a certain picture. He asked about how I had arranged the elements in the frame to construct the overall photo. His wife then asked me if I was even conscious of how it was coming together. The psychologist was seeing with the eye of the formalist. His wife was seeing with the eye of the artist. And, no, I was not conscious of how I was arranging the elements in that particular photo. Sometimes things just come together.

  5. patrick j clarke

    The old axiom of “knowing the rules so you can break them” echoes in my brain…and that’s why I think some of what the quote of HCB is true. But as I’ve learned over decades of trying to say something in art, I feel like all of that training had to finally become subconscious so I could focus on putting the story first. And hell, as I found in my latest work, sometimes you just are a fisherman throwing a line in the water and only realize later the size of the Marlin you had on the line and shock yourself at what the work is saying back to you.

    By that I mean that I think you have to get to a point where composition, light, and even subject is just so ingrained that it becomes something that flows through you, like casting the line in the water knowing the tug will come. That way you can break any of “the rules” because “the story” is what shines through, even if sometimes you aren’t aware of the fish on the line.

  6. Rob Campbell

    “Sometimes things just come together.”

    Bingo! That’s exactly why fashion and similar branches of model-related photography almost always include a lot of sequences of photos deemed worthless by the photographer, but made just in order to keep the action alive, to encourage the model as both hope themselves to be laying the blocks to that eureka! moment when it all comes together.

    Not being aware of that is probably why contemporary fashion stuff often looks so crisp, detailed, but void of emotional content: the late Peter Lindbergh tells of having to do a studio session wired to a computer, and he telling the guy in front of the monitor to sit there in silence and just observe, and wait. The person did as asked, and at the end, admitted that he had learned so much about how a session evolves, and how running streams of interjections and directorial suggestions from anyone/everyone else in the studio simply prevent anything worthwhile being allowed to develop at its natural pace.

    People like Avedon and Penn, fond of the ultra-large formats, produced work that, in my opinion, depended very much on pure technique and/or preordained layouts. If you look at Avedon’s Pirelli calendars, they have none of the spontaneity of those of Giacobetti, Moon or Feurer; they are technically brilliant but, dare I suggest it, sterile.

    Format often makes a huge difference to how anyone’s work looks from the point of view of being slice-of-life interesting. One of the times that I’d elect to use my Hassies instead of the Nikons was if I had the feeling that the gig wasn’t going to go anywhere, for whatever reason. Using the larger format meant that the physical quality might at least appear better, the contacts being easier for the client to judge, and I could run through the job in neat blocks of twelves, rather than having to waste time making thirty-six exposures instead before moving on to the next garment. With the Nikons, I gave contact sheets, but also prints of the shots that I thought the better ones. Nobody can read contacts very well without a lot of experience in doing just that.

    The above thought reminds me of the story where HC-B held somebody’s contact sheet upside down, and when asked about it, said it allowed him to judge the shooter’s sense of composition better. A cynic might suggest the great man needed to put on his glasses, but couldn’t allow himself to laugh and admit to his error. 😉

    1. patrick j clarke

      Since HCB really wanted to be a painter, I could see him saying that as that turning your painting upside down was something we were taught in Art School to see the composition better as you don’t focus on the “things” in the painting.

      And I do agree, difficulty in format often will dictate how “planned” things are…it’s one of the reasons I liked shooting peel-apart in my RB-67 as it sped things up for me to use that camera more often and in places it probably wasn’t the best tool for. 😛

      1. Keith Laban

        Sure. As a painter I had a mirror fixed to a wall that allowed me to see my work flipped and upside down. Useful tool, especially for non-figurative work.

  7. Andrew Molitor

    I’ve gradually come around to the point of view that content is really all that matters. You certainly can make formal pictures if you want, and they have real charm and virtue, but they’re not playing to photography’s strengths.

    Sure, arrange that frame to make the content clear, and maybe even emphasize this thing or that thing. It’s not like composition is useless.

    But the point of a photo is that it shows us a real thing, and it’s that thing that people are interested in.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Yes, content’s what matters, but first you have to define what is or is not “content”.

      Today, we have the difference between content and photography within every photograph that’s ever shot.

      1. Content, in the Internet, youtuber context often means little more than stuffing: the filling of an empty space within a video by means of using a lousy photograph.

      2. Photography, or a photograph, perhaps more accurately, is the production of an image that is memorable, has some intrinsic virtue that is either patently obvious to all, or perhaps only of importance to a viewer closely associated with the topic of the photograph.

      So yes, both are content, but one can be worthless chaff while the other of particular value per se, not simply something that fills space for no better purpose than simply to fill space. “Photography’s strengths” are not limited to simply being directly representational, as it seems to me you might be suggesting.

      What is a “real thing”? Do you, by that definition, seek to deny abstract photography its importance and artistic worth, in the cases where it has some? You could, by extension, be denying many painters their relevance and place in museums and galleries around world capitals. Sometimes, but not always, I might agree with that stance. I do understand that you wrote specifically about photography and not painting, but I think your conclusion about what people “are interested in” was simply opinion, nothing more. There are all manner of specific-interest groups and appetites in this world. Photography, too, has them in abundance.

  8. patrick j clarke

    I’m going to complain a little about “street photography’ and structure and content. And I mostly blame Eggleston.

    I see this waaaaaay too much. A girl in an orange skirt to the left, mid-ground, a billboard with same said orange in the back, the girl walking into a light patch with shadows all around creating geometric structure, and in the foreground a pigeon with an orang eye strutting, framing the girl with the orange skirt.

    Many layers, a color repeating and pulling thru, geometric structure and light pools with the ironic banality of a pigeon to add a touch of humor.

    You’ve seen this image before 1,000 times, and Eggleston was one of the first to use color as a novelty, and give interest to banal things like gas stations. But that was the story he was trying to tell, and it’s not about people…it’s about craft…and sometimes just being first. But these images are lauded and copied and are starting to define modern Street Photography. Nobody is interested in saying anything anymore other than calling out the irony of the superficial.

    In any art, the ability to tell a unique story is of upmost importance. Nebraska by Springsteen isn’t great because of it’s recording quality or its precise cadence, it really doesn’t have any of that…it’s great because of Joe Roberts and Frankie laughin’ and drinkin’ and nothin’ feels better than blood on blood.

  9. Bill B

    I wasn’t going to comment on this, because composition is either less important or more important than the particular writer says, in my opinion.

    But since luminaries of photography are being thrown around, all I’ll say is:

    Newton said ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.

    Good night, and good luck.

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