Informing Contexts - Under The Influence
Updated: Feb 16
Henri Cartier-Bresson has long been an inspiration for my practice. Whilst much of my photography is in a different style and genre there is much in his work that resonates with me.
The foundations of my photography come from an earlier passion for drawing and that attention to detail influences my aims when taking a photograph which I always see first and foremost as art.
Cartier-Bresson’s first loves were painting and drawing and these disciplines were further developed when he attended the art academy that Andre Lhote had opened. This was at the age of 18 and much of his formative years were spent studying art, being taught and influenced by Andre Lhote as well as meeting and engaging with a group of surrealists such as Andre Breton and Rene Crevel. I came to photography a lot later in life that Cartier-Breeson, but our joint love and appreciation of drawing is something that connects with me.
Through Lhote’s teaching, Cartier Bresson always retained an appreciation of the composition. In an interview when referring to the Gospels ‘ In the beginning there was The Word’ and yet for him ‘It was geometry’ adding ‘composition must be one of our constant preoccupations’. This is clearly evident in much of his work when all of the elements in the frame the moment is captured look and feel right to the eye. Working in a pre digital world it is sometimes easy to forget that much of Cartier-Bressons images have no cropping or alterations to the composition post edit. In fact he frequently placed a black frame around his work to deter cropping at a later stage.
This eye for detail and following the rules of composition is something that speaks directly to me. Whilst I am still developing my style and learning my trade, I am constantly focused on planning and carefully constructing my compositions.
Spanning many decades and continents Cartier-Bresson once said ‘for me photography is to place head, heart and eye along the same line of sight’ and from the 1950’s onwards he developed a series of maxims around precision and conciseness that helped develop his own aesthetic and style. In his the introduction to his book Images a la sauvette (Images on the Fly), first published in 1952 ,he defined his aim as ‘the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organisation of forms which give that event it’s proper expression’. This quote was the first reference of his famous maxim ‘ The Decisive Moment’.
Many of his images have that spontaneous, natural aesthetic to them and he was quick to point out that many of his images were as much the result of chance and decisiveness. Effectively being in the right place, at the right time and pressing the shutter at exactly the right moment.
Cartier-Bresson’s intent through his photographic observation was to capture something significant from daily life. Wherever he was, either at a main event or non event he would seek out the often overlooked humanity side of the events. Whilst this approach may have meant he missed some immediate prize winning opportunities, that other photographers went chasing after, he was more present in the location and the moment when making his pictures.
Whilst there are many plaudits for Cartier-Breesons work, which would suggest his conceptual intent and visual realisation were in harmony, there are some that felt ‘his oyster had no grit’. This was further emphasised by Robert Frank who is quoted ‘ he travelled all over the goddamed world and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it or just the composition.’
The irony of these words for me is that as a body of work and indeed individual photographs it is the viewer that is moved by them, despite whatever Cartier-Bresson may or not have been thinking at the time.
Whilst I do capture some street photography much of my work is not aligned in terms of genres with Cartier-Bressons and yet I do recognise this observation in many of my photographs where I am heavily influenced by the beauty of what I am trying capture and the composition of the shot.
When I first took up photography I attended a number of vocational college courses and vividly remember watching a You Tube Video by Steve McCurry on the rules of composition. The content and ideas in this video have lasted with me since that date, but so has the influence and imagery of the photographer in the video, Steve McCurry. Whereas Cartier-Bresson’s work was largely in black and white, McCurry’s use of vibrant colours is something that is evident in much of my practice.
McCurry’s route into photography really began in the late 1970’s when he left his job as a staff photographer and headed out on a one way ticket to India before crossing the border into Afghanistan. Similar to my comments regarding Cartier-Bresson, my practice is not in the same genre of McCurry’s but it’s his style, technique and intent in terms of his photography that resonates with me.
Commenting at the start of his book ‘Untold’ he explains ‘that every photograph I make is meant to stand on its own as a memorable image’. When I consider my practice and style this is something I aim for. I would much rather create one memorable and artistic image as opposed a series of spontaneous images taken in quick succession.
Like Cartier-Bresson, McCurry has his foundations set in art, graduating from the College of Arts and Architecture, Pennsylvania State University and it easy to see this appreciation of art coming through in the composition of his images. Following many of the composition rules, such as leading lines and symmetry, emphasises McCurry's architectural training.
McCurry has covered many areas of international and civil conflict, including Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The intended concept of his work being to focus on the human consequences of war, not only showing the impact on the landscape, but also, on the human face. The latter point is evidenced by the sheer volume of images that include people in them, many looking straight at the camera, encouraging the viewer to read their story through their eyes.
Whilst his back catalogue is vast, McCurry will be remembered by many as the photographer behind ‘The Afghan Girl’, an enduring portrait of Sharbat Gula. The piercing green eyes really stare back at you and force you to keep looking at the image. Having studied a number of historical photographers, most of which were black and white, this image really captivated me and encouraged me to explore the beauty and benefits of colour in photography.
McCurry’s use of colour is very pronounced, vibrancy and high contrast is evident as is the use of complimentary colours and other dynamics of the colour wheel. In striving for that memorable image there is a degree of perfection in his work that can sometimes distance the viewer from perhaps the reality of the situation being photographed. As identified whilst is conceptual intent was to focus on the effects of war, the visual realisation of some of his images are that the beauty and iconic nature of them can distract away from the harsh reality that is being photographed.
In recent years McCurry has faced a backlash from some quarters when it came to light that various post editing effects had been applied to some of his work. Speaking to Time Magazine in 2013 McCurry defended himself by stating ‘ I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller’. Ironically this description, rather than photojournalist which many had labelled him, is now regularly used as a ‘descriptor’ on Facebook.
For a number of photographers this post editing was difficult to accept, but looking at my own practice and McCurry’s aim to capture that memorable shot I remain comfortable with it. Having completed a Photoshop Course I remember thinking at the time that I hoped the ability to manipulate my photographs would not lessen my skills as a photographer. Two years on from this course and I do now fully embrace the use of post editing techniques to help improve my photographs .
I am aware from the above two photographers that I have focused on two that on face of it have little direct connection with my images and practice. However the glue that connects both Cartier-Bresson and McCurry and indeed my photography are the artistic foundations that then result in a conceptual intent to produce images that stand on their own as single pieces of art. With overt use of composition rules and a focus on beauty I am striving for my photographs to have the ‘wow factor’ that both of these fine photographer’s images have in abundance.
My practice to date does not conform with one particular genre in terms of style or subject matter but I do love to experiment with various techniques and editing to create an aesthetic that perhaps is not apparent at the time the shot was taken. I am keen to explore this side of photography further as I continue to build up my portfolio of work.
Looking ahead I recognise that my previous thirst for knowledge and desire to try all types of photography does need to be channelled into a more cohesive theme and body of work in order to produce both an initial research project in 2021 and a comprehensive Final Major Project in 2022. As we commence the next module on ‘Informing Contexts’ I am really keen to discuss this direction further with my tutors and peers.
Clement Cheroux (2008) Henri Cartier-Bresson (New Horizons) Thames & Hudson
David Company (Reprinted 2020) On Photographs Thames & Hudson - Page 82
www.christies.com. (n.d.). 10 things to know about Henri Cartier-Bresson | Christie’s. [online] Available at: https://www.christies.com/features/Henri-Cartier-Bresson-8466-1.aspx.
The Independent. (2013). Revealed: the undeveloped art of Henri Cartier-Bresson. [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/revealed-the-undeveloped-art-of-henri-cartier-bresson-302707.html
Steve McCurry (2013) Untold The Stories Behind the Photographs Phaidon - Page 6
Nationalgeographic.com. (2016). Photographer Steve McCurry Biography -- National Geographic. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/contributors/m/photographer-steve-mccurry/.
Huxley-Parlour Gallery. (2018). The Afghan Girl. [online] Available at: https://huxleyparlour.com/the-afghan-girl/.
Time. (n.d.). Steve McCurry: I’m Not a Photojournalist. [online] Available at: https://time.com/4351725/steve-mccurry-not-photojournalist/.