Piercing the Silence – Intimate Moments with Henri Cartier-Bresson
The subjects of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are most often caught unawares by the photographer. As Bresson attempts to capture what he calls “the inner silence of the consenting victim” he ends up portraying intimate moments in time.
Bresson studied painting before picking up his first camera. He was trained during the Surrealist movement, as is evident by the weight of his subjects in many of his photos. Bresson’s photographs most often have a familiarity to them that is often times highlighted by his use (understanding) of lighting technique and composition of the frame. Take for instance his photographs from his scrapbook, which portray the late Matisse at home with his doves. Note the stark contrast of the three white doves in the foreground against the darker background where Matisse sits holding another dove as he sketches it in his notebook. Then take notice of the room itself, the intersecting and dividing lines of the room (the bars of the birdcages, the chair, the table, the window frame), the hard shadows and fast falloff all complete a dynamic picture of an otherwise calm moment with the artist. The studium of this photograph is the act of Matisse drawing; it is such a quiet moment in the photograph’s history. The punctum is what touches me; it is the frailty of the aging Matisse which brings on empathy. His house coat, his scarf, the checkered pants he wears, even the hat he has on his head all turn him from just a subject, to a person in time. Here he is, naturally human and casually himself.
The next photo that caught my attention in the show was of the group of young boys playing a game in front of a white wall in Madrid. The wall behind them appears to belong to some great building and has tiny little windows scattered across it’s face. Search as I might I could make out no discernable pattern for the windows to follow. There seemed to be no psychological closure as I attempted to count the number of floors, or rooms in the ominous structure. Meanwhile my eye rests on the boys, huddled at different corners of the photograph as if the frame is drawing them to the lower right and left hand sides. The studium of the shot is the boys themselves, playing their game, laughing, unawares of the world around them. The punctum appears just behind the boy on the left hand side, there sitting, watching the camera is another little boy, one not involved in the game, scowling, for only me to see.
The last photo of Bresson I wish to discuss is from his Mexico series, the photo of the single painted woman. What struck me as most bizarre about this photo at first was I didn’t know where the woman was in relationship to her background. Her upper torso seemed to just float in mid-air with no foreground or background to situate her in the shot. It wasn’t until closer scrutiny did I realize that she was standing in a hole cut into the door. Because the woman is off center and the door itself actually frames her through symmetry she becomes a dynamic focus of our attention. The woman is the studium of the shot, she is what we are watching and looking at, and in turn she looks right back at us. It is the punctum of this photo that made me uneasy . In the photo we understand that the woman is fully aware of the camera, yet her smile appears forced and awkward, making her expression almost unnatural. It is because of this look that I am pulled out of the world of Bresson’s silence and begin to wonder who is the woman and why is she there?
Though I do not hope to compare my work by any means with Bresson’s I did notice a few similarities as well as many striking differences between our styles and compositions. While I believe some of our photos share a similar weight, in fact I tried quite often to keep my subjects from being in the absolute center of the frame, as is evident in my the shot of my subject’s hand on the sheet or even her walking up the stairs on the porch. I many times chose the sides, corners or even top of the frame to gravitate my subject towards as a way to make the shot more dynamic and less stagnant. Bresson does this similarly with most of his photographs, the studium, or action of the photo appearing at the top, or bottom, or either side of the frame. With these similarities in mind I must admit that it is the harsh comparison to Bresson’s art to mine that make me take such notice of his work. Whereas I posed my subjects in almost ever shot, such as one would do in a studio setting, Bresson’s subjects were free, they had their natural world around them to live in. I was trying to capture lighting technique and composition, Bresson was just capturing life. While I made my attempts at photographing what I saw, Bresson photographed what he felt; an intimate moment trapped in time, or maybe perhaps just a piece of inner silence for the viewer to contemplate.