Contextual studies assignment 1




I chose Henri Cartier-Bresson and his photograph, Paris Quai St Bernard to write about.


This photograph was shot in 1932 in Paris by artist Henri Cartier-Bresson near the Gare d’Austerlitz railway station. It was earlier in Bresson’s career; this type of image was very new for the time. Made possible by the development of the new Leica 35mm handheld mobile camera. But also by the incredible skill of Bresson, as he was able to capture people almost in motion, giving this photograph and much of his work a story or puntum within his photography, capturing the attention of the viewer.

Upon first look at this photograph we are instantly drawn to the geometry and the matching of geometric form. There are parallel lines that flow vertically, from the image starting with the roof slates in the far top right, to the pallets at the bottom left. As well as of course the edges of the walls and the train lines. The overlapping of these parallel lines give depth and texture to the photograph, whilst showing us the multitude of levels within Paris.

The early 1930 ‘s in Paris were a time of architectural change under the design of Le Corbusier. Bresson may have wanted to capture elements of the city that were to him, worth capturing before they were gone forever. Formally a sketch artist and painter, Bresson in his own words exclaimed “I suddenly understand that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.”

We find the punctum of this photograph is the man that is momentarily leaning over the wall to observe something on the train tracks below. This is both the puntum of the image and a decisive moment. If Bresson had pressed the shutter any sooner or later than at the point the man is looking over the wall the photograph would not have the same impact it currently does, which is why this image is so poignant.

The viewer is firstly lead to the man looking at the tracks by the parallel lines of the wall on the right of the image. Then we are in unwittingly begged to ask the following questions; why are the men there? What are they looking at? Are they together? Has something bad happened on the tracks below? Has the man dropped his possessions? Is the man looking to see a train is approaching? Etc. The fact that we are asking these questions give this photograph a story. If the photograph was simply just the image without the men, it would not have an affect nearly as prominent as it does.

Bresson seems to be stood on the wall as he took this photograph giving us the impression he was intentionally looking for places that naturally have this geometry, which many of his images enrapture. I doubt that you could see what is shown in this image from eye level by the average passer by and this shows the natural ability of Bresson to frame the image in such a way to create geometric form out of the average kayos of a bustling city. A big influence for Bresson was Kertesz, who’s work is full of smarty and geometric form and focused in the city of Paris. It seems he mirrored Kertesz work in the early days of his photography and grew his style from there on.

Unbeknown to Bresson and to Kertesz out of this photograph and from similar ones of their work they created a whole genre of photo journalism now called street photography.


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