Two years ago, John Berger’s short piece on André Kertész’s “A Red Hussar Leaving, June 1919” 1, made me think differently about Street Photography. What was to me an ordinary photograph unexpectedly became special.
“Everything in it is historical: the uniforms, the rifles, the corner by the Budapest railway station, the identity and biographies of all the people… And yet it also concerns a resistance to history: an opposition. The opposition exists in the parting look between the man and the woman. The boy is watching, but is excluded from the look”, Berger said.
“The photograph seizes me from within. The particular has been equalized with the universal” he went on. “The monopoly that history has over time is broken. The silent gaze between the Hussar (the father?) and the mother holds my attention fixed and unmoving. My mind stills, but at the same time I am stirred by something deeper”.
Some photographs, like this one, affect me. Why is this? What is it about some street photographs that have this effect whilst others, the vast majority, don’t? What is it that stirs me? And what is this “me” that is stirred? It’s these questions that I would like to ponder in this article.
To find answers I was drawn to the writing and photographs of Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Stieglitz, who provided approaches to exploring these questions. The debate within Aesthetics, through Kant, Hegel and Heidegger has proved useful to me, particularly the “off-shoots” of Phenomenology and in particular modern Hermeneutics. As Berger reminds us: “the traffic between story-telling and metaphysics is continuous”, 2 but I will only lightly touch philosophy. 3 Let’s start with Cartier-Bresson and Stieglitz.
Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment”
Cartier-Bresson did not write much, preferring to let his photographs do the talking. His “decisive moment” is one of the most used phrases but also misunderstood by many. Taking his text from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz, the phrase has been trivialised to the level of the banal. Many photographers simply see it as an exhortation to be ready for the “moment”, lest it evades you, to be hyper-sensitively alert.
“Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif”
But it’s more than this: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression” (my emphasis). 4
And further: “In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment on the way in which life itself unfolds,” (my emphases).
The decisive moments (there are several: the scene unfolding, the photographer’s perception stilling; the viewer’s gaze deepening) are, to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, moments of perception seen as the unfolding of embodied intentionality within the photographer, and within the viewer.
Putting it more simply, some photographs engage us in ways that are more than shallow perception. Moments arise that allow us to re-experience feelings, emotions, memories and imagination. Each of these manifolds of experience is commutable and inter-changeable, meaning that one experience can easily slide into another, (Bergson’s multiplicity).
The Ancient Greek terms for time, “Kronos” and “Kairos”, provide another interesting way of interpreting Cartier-Bresson’s insight. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time,the latter signifies a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens. While Kronos is quantitative, Kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature and hints at a mental rather than physical process where mind and matter meet. 5 Phenomenologists, following Bergson, have conceptualized this as immanent time and internal consciousness of time. Many commentators have spoken about how photographs “interrupt the flow of time” 6. “They do this in thousands of ways … Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, Atget’s slowing down to a standstill, Thomas Struth’s ceremonial stopping of time”. Clearly, the experience of time’s speed is quite different to clock-time and is something we all know much about in our day-to-day living. «« (click next page to continue)
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- “Understanding a Photograph, edited by Geoff Dyer, Penguin Books 2103 ↩
- Berger, “And our faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos”’ NY. Pantheon 1984 p 30 ↩
- I realize that any photographer reading this may throw his hands up in the air, if he gets this far, and exclaim, “What has this got to do with taking good photographs!” I myself sometimes struggle with academic photographic theory, but I persevere. ↩
- from Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952). The Decisive Moment. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 1–14 ↩
- I am indebted to Knut Skjærven for this reference: https://phenomenologyandphotography.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/chan-fai-cheungkairos-phenomenology-and-photography-book-review/ ↩
- from Berger in “Fifty Key Writers on Photography” edited by Mark Durden, Routledge, 2013 ↩