Tag Archives: Henri Cartier-Bresson

The 30 Shot (Weekly Photo Challenge: An Unusual POV)

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Good Evening:

What do you do when you want to take a photograph? Chances are that you lift your camera up to your eyes, zoom in or out depending upon the shot, maybe fiddle with a few other controls, and then snap the shot. For this post, I request that you consider a different take on taking pictures, creating a different POV using a different POV.

Wait, Did I Just Take a Picture? Haight Street in Front of McDonald's, 27 August 2006

Wait, Did I Just Take a Picture by Accident? Haight Street in Front of McDonald’s, 27 August 2006

For a long time, I’ve wanted a means of taking/performing/committing street photography inconspicuously, without anyone realizing that a photographer (gasp!) lurked in the vicinity. Took me a while to realize that I always had such a technique available. Occurred in the photograph above, occurred in the photograph below.

Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California

Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California

I sometimes snapp pictures by accident–an involuntary twitch of the right forefinger, and the shutter closes. In the past, I had reflexively, without thinking, deleted them from the camera and/or my computer. But a few months ago, I took in the Garry Winogrand exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shortly before it closed for renovations.

Stunning experience. Winogrand often did on purpose what I had done by accident (and had always assumed was a blunder). What had always seemed a dumb but temporary waste of pixels had constituted a major part of the work of one of those great photographers I had never heard of because I know so dang little about photography. Then I remembered a scene from the Costa-Gravas movie Z in which a photojournalist interviews the widow of the assassinated politician, sneaking photographs of her with a camera that seems to dangle uselessly at his side. I figured out that one can take pictures without even looking at the subject!

I call it The 30 Shot–largely because I have no idea what term professionals use.

The technique requires a small point and shoot digital camera with a very large view finder window. I zoom out as much as possible and use the default Landscape setting, then just let the camera dangle at my side. The lens hangs roughly 30 inches above the ground, hence my name for the shot. But the technique proved very difficult for me to learn and led to a lot of hopeless but deletable mistakes. I took all of the following shots in the past few days using a Nikon CoolPix S9100. I have not edited any of them for reasons I’ll mention later.

The biggest mistake: simply missing the shot.

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Yes. I would call that a miss.

Another problem I encountered consisted of horribly tilted angles that even editing in iPhoto couldn’t cure. I finally solved this through practice. Find a long stretch of flat road (think that’s easy in San Francisco?), with a brick or cinder block wall, something with long straight lines running parallel to the ground. Practice walking while pointing the camera at those lines and keeping it both steady and untilted.

The goal is to develop what actors call muscle memory. Try to remember the stress on your wrist and fingers as you hold the camera level. Once you do that, you can take pictures without looking at your subjects knowing that the results will turn out level or more often, almost level but easily fixable. Something like this.

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Not a masterpiece of course, but with cropping, correcting the tilt, and adjusting the light and dark areas (actually, I’m thinking B&W), should be an acceptable picture.

If you walk past a sitting subject, take a batch of shots, one quick one after another. Some will slightly miss:

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One or two will prove usable.

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Correct tilt, bright and dark spots, get rid of that bleeping pigeon, and I’ll have another adequate shot. I took 6 pictures of this gentleman rooting through his bad and deleted 4. No regrets–and no regrets are a vital part of The 30 Shot because believe me, you will miss far too many great shots.

I’ve learned a couple of other interesting techniques: first, that you don’t want take a shot as your foot hits the ground because it produces blur (unless you want the blur for artistic effect); and you can twist the camera around so that you take pictures of subjects directly behind you without even knowing what you’re photographing. Such as this man:

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A good example of the virtues of zooming out as much as possible. When I edit copies of this picture, I can crop it many different ways to produce many different new pictures. Megapixels are meaningless most of the time; I have no idea why people obsess over them (the sensor and the lens are far more important). Cropping is the one time when I do want the megapixels; however, even here the “mere” 12 megapixels I have are more than good enough for editing purposes. An 8×10 or even a 9×13 will look good.

Potentially, my mistakes can prove a lot of fun, and that is a very good thing because I make a lot of mistakes, no, I make a LOT of mistakes. Precision of expression is good. Whenever I practice The 30 Shot, I end up deleting 60-80 per cent of the pictures because they are truly hopeless. Not a problem. My definition of A Real Photographer is someone who can take 100 pictures, upload them to a computer, study each one carefully, edit each one as best as possible–and then delete all 100. Obviously, I am not A Real Photographer.

But the mistakes will sometimes amuse me.

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This next one deserves some photographic love and affection and tender loving care. I wanted to photograph a young couple walking their hyperactive Shih Tzu, but three of the shots missed badly (and I deleted them), while the fourth yielded this:

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Look at how her posture almost exactly mimics the man reflected in the glass! Can you also see the reflection of a second man’s legs in the marble? Similar posture! This is a Garry Winogrand type of shot, very typical of his late period work where he would ignore the rules about including the entire person in the picture. I think he actually The 30 Shot or another technique akin to it. No, no, of course I’m not even close to his level of quality, but I think Winogrand took a lot of shots using a similar technique. Of course I’ll convert to B&W because I’ve never seen a Winogrand photograph in color, and I’ll crop the left and bottom edges a bit. If presentable, I will present the finished results in a later post.

I do think that all of these shots would have been even worse had I taken them at eye level. Something about keeping the lens 30 inches above the ground seems to produce better angles and therefore results, esp. when the objets d’art are sitting. I can’t explain why. Please don’t think I’m trying to teach you anything, because I have no idea what I’m doing. Really, I don’t want to teach; I want to share how I’m learning. This post represents me as a student, not a teacher.

The final shot–perhaps–has the most potential.

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Let us not kid ourselves; right now the photo is a complete mess. Total disaster. The shadows are too dark, the whites are too bright, and you can’t tell that’s her helmet she’s removing from her head. But the composition, and the story it tells of their relationship at that moment in time (more like that millisecond in time) means that I might have (accidentally, of course) captured Henri Cartier-Bresson’s beloved Decisive Moment.

And that is why I have edited none of these photos so far. I’ve concluded that my previous commitment to “editing in the camera,” while a good idea, should have never become an absolute rule. All of the professional photographers I know edit their pictures, believing that taking the picture is only the beginning, not the end. So I will take this messy collection of bad photographs and teach myself how to edit them.

Presenting the results later–assuming I have anything worth presenting.

Vonn Scott Bair

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Snapshots & Snippets of San Francisco, 13 November 2012

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Good Evening:

Trying to capture candid shots of homo sapiens sanfrancisciensis in its natural habitat can pose a host of challenges, especially when San Francisco is not exactly a “natural habitat.” But we are an interesting subspecies, so I persist, even though I persistently delete most of my attempts. How Henri Cartier-Bresson did it, I’ll never know. Here are some recent comparatively adequate photographs.

Look closely and you’ll that this gentleman’s cat carrier has wheels and an attached pole for tugging the box behind him; nonetheless, he seemed to find it easier just to carry his cat (who took one look at me and hid):

Carrying the Cat Carrier in Front of City Hall

I’ve written of this location in “The Photographer As Crocodile.” This is a recent shot:

West Side of the Orpheum Theater, 9 October 2012

Snippet #1, overheard near the Civic Center Farmers Market this past Sunday: “Laaaaaadies and Gentlemen! Presenting the world’s finest wino! Jingle bells, jingle bells, help me get drunk now”

For over two decades, a group of chessplayers have set up shop on Market Street, playing for fun, spare change or serious dollars. They used to set up at 5th & Market, but recently moved to the block between 6th and 7th Streets. But I used to play chess myself (peak USCF rating: 2282), and I know that devotees will play anywhere, anytime (even during the annual Pride Parade).

Market Street Chessplayers

Bacon-Wrapped Hotdog Vendor at Golden Gate & Polk Street

The celebration of the San Francisco Giants’ 2012 World Series victory in the Civic Center drew street vendors selling the newest culinary sensation in town: bacon-wrapped hotdogs. That was not a misprint. Take a hotdog, with all its, shall we say, interesting ingredients, wrap with a few strips of bacon, serve on a bun topped with onions. San Francisco might represent itself to the world as one of the great culinary destinations, but between you and I, we love our junk food.

Don’t tell anyone.

Snippet #2 featured the man in the picture below:

6, 9 & 71 Bus Stop @ 8th & Market, 11 November 2012

He fixated upon me, ignoring the woman with the green and yellow who remained completely oblivious to his presence.

“Hey, you! I know your kind! You have a big house, don’t you? You have a wife and two kids, don’t you? I know what kind you are. You hate your brats’ crappy rap music, don’t you? I bet you stuff your chimney with paper so you can’t hear that s—, don’t you?”

Then my bus arrived and he wandered off to find a new “pestered husband.”

So ends my latest collection of street photography. I shall keep practicing (and deleting) because for the time being I can’t think of a better way to get better.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Photographer As Crocodile

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Good Morning:

Once it has grown to adult length, let’s say 15 feet, once it has grown to adult weight, let’s say 500 pounds, and once it has found prime riverfront property to call its home, life must be pretty good for a Nile Crocodile. No one will come around trying to collect rent, the views are excellent, and it gets to enjoy unlimited free tanning sessions. Oh, and food? It has to come to you, either to drink the river’s priceless water or to ford the shallow parts as part of its migration. In other words, a Nile Crocodile spends its life relaxing, watching the world go by, and sometimes ambushing it.

In other words, the Nile Crocodile acts like a photographer.

One of the things I’ve learned in studying the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, an artist I never understood until I tried to copy him, is that there is art in not seeking it. In my February post, “A Second-Rate (Third-Rate?) Homage to Henri Cartier-Bresson” I confessed that I couldn’t appreciate his greatness until after I tried to photograph as he did. One of the best lessons I learned was that you don’t have to go rushing around looking for pretty pictures. You can find the right spot, the right setting, and wait for the picture to come to you. I refer to masterpieces such as “Hyeres, France,” 1932, where C-B simply found a great staircase and then waiting for something interesting to happen. Or even better, “Behind Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, France,” 1932, where the viewer has to work a bit before realizing that Henri captured an almost impossible shot.

Which brings me to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater and its plain, barren, Hyde Street side. The Market Street entrance is all glitzy, fancy, ornamental and all the rest of that stuff, but the Hyde Street side is almost completely blank, except for one roll-up automobile exit and something that might be a air-conditioning unit over head. Totally devoid of interest except when the sun is overhead at the right time and at the right angle. I discovered this during a trip to the Wednesday farmers market at the Civic Center, which is behind the Orpheum. The circumstances were right, so I (the “Nile Crocodile,” if you will) found a post across the street (the “river,” if you will) and waited for the world to go by. The “Wildebeest,” if you will. Traffic was a problem, and even when it wasn’t, the people on the other side of the street did not conveniently arrange themselves in artistic poses (C-B must have suffered much despair in the darkroom). But of the dozens of quick snapshots, a few managed to stand out, especially this one:

Elderly Woman Leaving Farmers Market, Hyde Street Near Grove & Market, 10 June 2007

Still not at C-B’s level, but an above-average shot. I can’t avoid wondering how many thousands of masterworks Henri would have produced if he had worked in the digital age.

Vonn Scott Bair

A Second-Rate (Third-Rate?) Homage to Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Good Evening:

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.

The Mask at the Park, 13 May 2007

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 White Cap, 13 May 2007

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