The Var Department
Henri Cartier Bresson’s photos are masterpieces of snapshot photography. On viewing his portfolio, two examples of his work attracted my attention and imagination. The first photo, I viewed, was taken in France of ‘The Var Department, Hyères’ in 1932 and in the other one in Paris of ‘Behind Saint-Lazare’ also taken in 1932. I will express, in this essay, how these two classic photos show Bresson’s perfect timing to capture life in action that on the surface seems plain in its black and white imagery but what underlies them, I can see, is a master photographer in action.
To begin with ‘Behind Saint-Lazare’ is a stand-out photo for me, one that is multi-dimensional. I only had to observe the symmetry of the reflections of the gentleman, the railings, and the building in the water to observe an angelic feature to the obvious bleakness of the photo. The wrought fencing, the station building, the workmen, and the debris portray a world of industry.
Bresson, as a photographer, I feel, captures life’s ongoing journey. ‘Behind Saint-Lazaare’ has what looks like a gentleman off to work as he is captured jumping over the vast expanse of water supposedly left from a downpour. Moreover, in my opinion, Bresson’s immaculate timing manages to blur the image of the gentleman enough so the viewer does not get lost in the expression of him jumping through the picture. Bresson’s angle of the gentleman captures this moment in unique fashion as the man hovers in the air as the ripples of the wooden makeshift bridge gently spread. You see he will not make it without getting wet. The picture offers a working-class perspective as building work appears to be in the background. The photo shows Paris not in its exquisite architecture but in my opinion an industrious city where people struggle to earn a living. The bleak outlook breathes naturalness into the photo and portrays life as it is on a daily basis.
What’s more ‘The Var Department’ photo offers a trajectory of forms that convolute over the snapshot. The contours and direction of the flight of stairs lead in different paths almost confusingly that add context to the geometric composition of the photo. The travel of the stairs inspires a surrealist outlook comparable with MC Esher’s ‘Relativity’ picture of the infinite staircase. Even the wall with its square stone block gives a contradictory shape to the photo which is contrasted again with the curve of the bending road. The road gives the appearance also of sloping away, as with further viewing I believe the cyclist is travelling downhill. In the stillness of the photo, the cyclist is seemingly racing through the image. With this cyclist, I believe Bresson always means to have people in his photos to show life’s continuous flow, and ‘The Var department’ captures this beautifully with the cyclist off to a new experience. Echoes of the Tour De France permeate this idea as these quiet and quaint little towns are thrown open to the world as the array of cyclists come whizzing by each year.
Furthermore, with both these photos, I was taken in by the range of colors although strictly they are black and white. The assortment shades of black and white permeate these photos and add tremendous boldness to the overall feel that leaves the photo feeling eternal. Additionally Bresson creates the blurred image to the main characters while not letting them pause in action. They are essential parts of the photo but not to the extent of taking over the picture. In my opinion, Bresson captures these two images at that decisive moment that if taken any moment later the whole image would lose that masterful imagery. Moreover, human interest is decisive to the photos, be it in the gentleman’s big leap across the pond or the cyclist’s race to his destination reminds me of humanity’s effort. I also believe these photos show life in different aspects. The bleakness of ‘The Var Department’ with the blackened white stones shows a town that almost seemed stagnant compared with the industrious city in ‘Behind Saint-Lazzare’. The men are workers in the photo but in the other photo, the cyclist could be anyone off to an appointment.
To conclude, the exact moment in time exposures highlight a photographer with a unique ability to capture life and movement while also encapsulating the color, shades, and symmetry of the world. The more I look at these photos more ideas come to mind which salutes the importance of these photos. Not only do they capture the life that creates thought, but also they become timeless to me that stirs emotion and admiration.