An unseen member of the picnic

Object Lesson: Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004

August 08, 2004|By Interview by Patricia Meisol

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, died Tuesday at age 95. Cartier-Bresson described his work as reflecting "the decisive moment": "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression."

The Sun asked Will Larson, director of the graduate program in photography and digital imaging at the Maryland Institute College of Art, to discuss a Cartier-Bresson photo that defined this style. He chose the photo above, "Sunday on the Banks of the River Marne, 1938."

There's a feeling that the event does not end with the taking of the picture. It is not posed, staged or contrived. That's a significant thing; for the most part, people are aware of the fact that their picture is being taken -- but not here. It feels more like a frame from a movie and part of a larger narrative structure than a single photograph."

(The "decisive moment" here, Larson says, is the simple act of pouring a glass of wine. The man in the hat agrees to pour another glass of wine -- it's not clear for whom -- and so marks a gesture of accommodation and continuity.) "It invites the viewer into the seemingly introspective fray of the warm afternoon meal. Our interest in the image is animated by the fact that we are watching them watch something or someone off camera. It's a clever strategy -- we're in a position where we're watching them -- it triggers our imagination and curiosity about the unseen and unknown. ...

"The camera feels like it is missing, and we are the 'other' unseen member of this small, intimate group, observing and anticipating along with everyone else. That's hard to do photographically, and this is another thing he does very well. Another observation: the boat, the water and dock -- the boat is too small to bring them there -- all reinforce a sense of isolation and separation from everything else. ... This reflects Cartier-Bresson's genius to capture the larger meaning in the most mundane and simplest of events."

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