I’ve always liked photography, but before I actually took up photography, the one photographer I never could understand was Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ansel Adams, of course. Dorothea Lange, sure. But Cartier-Bresson? His pictures always looked like nothing more than snapshots, not even in focus. I mean, come on, a blurry picture of Alberto Giacometti? The sculptures are in focus, but not the sculptor?! How is that great art? Thus I “reasoned” back then.
So when I finally started taking my own pictures, it seemed to me that the best way to figure out why everyone appreciated HC-B was to go out and try to take the same kind of pictures as the great man. If you want to learn what makes an artist great, just try and copy him or her.
That was my first good photography idea in a long, long time. One fine day (May 13, 2007, to be exact) I visited Golden Gate Park and tried to take Cartier-Bresson pictures. One area in Golden Gate Park, between the tennis courts and the children’s playground, has been the home of a decades-old drum circle that gathers every Saturday and Sunday and performs non-stop for hours on end. Oh, a tabla or conga player might take a break to smoke a joint (a cigarette? In San Francisco? Are you kidding me?), but the percussion doesn’t end. Seemed like exactly the sort of subject that would draw the great man’s attention. I set my camera to B&W mode and went to work.
I learned my lesson. Oh, did I ever learn my lesson. Henri Cartier-Bresson was every bit the genius people say he was. Out of close to one hundred pictures, two were maybe good enough to stand out as second-rate (or third-rate) tributes to the man’s photographic artistry. Here is the first.
Eh, not bad. I like how people usually need a moment or two to figure out where the mask is placed.
The next picture actually comes almost sort of somewhat mildly close to capturing Cartier-Bresson’s concept called The Decisive Moment. I was snapping pictures of the drummers at random when this happened:
The composition–completely by accident–focuses on the gentleman in the back facing the camera, wearing a white cap. There are a number of reasons why. The line of percussion instruments in the center, and the line of heads to the left, both lead directly to him. The walkway on the left and the circle on the right both point at him, and the heavyset person in the striped shirt seems to be walking directly at him. But the big reason you notice the man is because of his white cap. But the only reason you notice the white cap is because of the dark shirt of the man who just happened to walk behind our subject at the exact moment I randomly snapped the picture. The decisive moment.
But this decisive moment was decisively a complete accident. Cartier-Bresson? He didn’t have accidents. He didn’t have digital cameras either. Imagine what a huge body of outstanding work he would have produced had he been alive today. That’s how I learned what makes Henri Cartier-Bresson one of the greatest artists of the past Century. Some of my somewhat better pictures prove how much I’m just an amateur and how much he was an artist.
Vonn Scott Bair