Hyeres, Cartier-Bresson

All takes to be a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, is “one finger, one eye and two legs”. Then, Cartier-Bresson must have possessed one of the best eyes in the business. Born in 1908 in Paris into a wealthy family, Cartier-Bresson had a lusty, rebellious hunger for travel. With a head full of Rimbaud and a copy of “Ulysses” under his arm, he set off for west Africa in search of adventure. (He aspired to be a painter, but Gertrude Stein suggested he drop the brushes).

He bought his first Leica in the Côte d’Ivoire when he was 23. It fitted into his pocket, along with a few rolls of film. With this new and light equipment — it and rolls of film fitted nicely into coat pockets — Cartier-Bresson would document everyone from Balinese dancers and Mongolian wrestlers to Spanish matadors and New York bankers. When snapping a spectacle—be it a coronation, a sporting event, or a parade—he trained his camera on the unsuspecting bystanders. He would wait until that “decisive moment” when the right composition filled the frame. And it all came so naturally, too: he rarely used a light meter, checked his aperture setting, took more than a few shots of a single subject, and almost never cropped his photos.

The photo above was taken in 1932 in Hyeres, a small town on the French Riviera, and has been featured in many retrospectives on Cartier Bresson’s work. The decisive moment here nicely juxtaposes the fleeting biker with the spiral staircase; the poignancy of the moment is accentuated by the fact that although the photo seems as if it was taken accidentally or on the spot, we can also imagine Cartier-Bresson crouching over those railings in Hyeres for hours, waiting for the right instant. I choose the image here because of a funny internet-age back story. Without mentioning that it was taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, someone has posted the photo in a flickr group for public criticism. Most commentators ripped the photo apart (especially the blurry biker part) in the comments that are scathing and hilarious. De gustibus non est disputandum, indeed.

10 thoughts on “Hyeres, Cartier-Bresson

  1. Oh wow, that flickr group’s responses are HILARIOUS. This made my day.

    (long time subscriber, btw, but this is my first comment. Iconic Photos is far and away my favorite site. Keep up the great work. I learn so much from you. What’s your background? You really know your history of photography!)

  2. I saw this photo a few years ago in Chicago Art Museum, on C-B retrospective. It was surprisingly bigger (the print, I mean) than I expected, and contrast is more pronounced than in the art books or on the screen.

    I had to stay next to it for some time; it draws you in rather powerfully.

  3. “one finger, one eye and two legs” – yeah, Bresson, but how do you hold the camera if you’ve only got one finger? Hmmm? Rubber bands? You also need a tonne of cash, which Bresson had.

    I remember the Flickr controversy. The first bunch of commentators hated the image because it was blurry and the man was leaving the frame instead of entering it, which is WRONG.

    On an objective level it’s interesting that so many iconic images are technically imperfect, because they were taken under duress, or something went wrong and they had to be cropped and pushed etc. And it’s interesting that so many images that were technically impressive in their day now look very bland and dull. People can write about technical perfection because it can be measured, but they can’t measure soul.

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