Behind the Gare Saint Lazare by Henri Cartier Bresson (1932)
What’s up photography fans? Today I would like to talk about a very special photo. A photo that basically marks the beginning of snapshot photography. Taken by legendary street photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. Lets check out the Place de l'Europe Gare Saint Lazare.
Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare is said to be the best photo Henri Cartier-Bresson ever took. It is an embodiment of Bressons Decisive moments. It was possible because Bresson had access to a candid camera, a small Leica that allowed him to be more flexible. Unlike big cameras on tripods, his Leica was handheld and let him move much more freely. Nowadays, we are very used to photos like this but back in 1932 it was pretty new approach. If you would like to find out more about his life and photography feel free to check my video about him.
Now, let’s take a look at the composition. The first obvious thing or technique you see when you look at the photograph is the figure of man leaping above the water and his reflection. The figure to ground relationship is a basic but powerful technique that actually attracts your eyes when you first look at the picture. For eyes, it is very natural since you experience it every day, for example, when reading a text. It usually is a case of dark figure on a light background or the other way around light figure on the dark background.
Also if you look closely you can see echoing shapes of the leaping figure on the posters as well. Which is not quite a case of rhythm since that is often represented by the same shapes, which this one is not, but it still kinds of echoes the shape, or the activity we can say, and its very fun element. It is not like the photo is built around that since it is not something you realize right away (at least I didn't) but it is nice to have it there. Great part of this composition that Cartier-Bresson was able to capture is this tension caused by the man just almost touching the water. That creates anticipation since your brain knows what’s about to happen but since the picture is frozen in time it is not happening.. It has also been used by some other artists. The most famous use of this technique is probably Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Now for painters it is definitely much easier to use this visual technique since they can manipulate their composition to their liking. The rooftops are also great for stabilizing the image. You have the movement into the leaping figure but also stability in the picture.
So being at the right place at the right time was definitely paid off for Bresson. This image is a great example of that since Bresson took it at the beginning of his career when he was much less experienced. After Bresson returned from Africa he decided to fully switch from painting to photography. Together with his friends he traveled around Europe for two years and it was during that time he took this picture. He was just passing by a construction site with this temporary fence. As he was passing by he put his camera In between planks in a way that the fence completely blocked his viewfinder together with a part of his lens and took the photo. As you can see in the negative, Place de l'Europe is one of the few photographs that Cartier- Bresson ever chose to crop. He continued to travel around the world and made many beautiful photographs (some of which I have already talked in the past) and is rightfully called the father of street photography genre. Let me know in the comments what your favorite photo (by Henri Cartier-Bresson) is.