A version of this post revised in April 2017 is available here.
Three women, frozen in time, are looking out at me, doing… something.
Each woman touches one of the others. On the left – wearing a pointy hat and a floral-patterned dress – a Mexican-looking woman has one hand on the back of the head of the woman next to her while her other hand stretches around her right shoulder holding – bang in the middle of the picture – a straight razor. On the right, a dark skinned – African? – woman leans back. Her hair is pushed from her temple by the central figure’s left hand. She raises her left hand defensively towards her face; its palm could be either warding off a blow or trying to block the camera’s view. The fingertips of her other hand brush delicately over the strap of the slip – or is it a man’s vest? – crossing the central woman’s right shoulder. This figure leans in towards us wearing a marvelously neutral expression, emphasised in the composition by the light patch of out-of-focus plaster behind her and her head’s size within the frame.
I looked again and paused. Is the woman in the middle a man? Her clothes are hard to read – is that a man’s vest? – the angle and the tangled arms mean you cannot see whether she has breasts. Her face is quite masculine, and her eyebrows, while shaped, are thick. But the arms and face are hairless, too – the razor? or is it a woman being dressed up as a man?
My first thought had been of Matisse’s dancers, but his maidens dance in a ring, lost in their rite, unaware of being watched. These three are – regardless of gender – not maidens and make eye-contact with me through the lens of the camera, across time. Then, my mind glanced away to another Spanish scene and another razor, slicing across an eyeball at the start of the film, Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel & Dali) but it wasn’t the razor that kept me looking. I felt uncomfortable having been spotted; caught looking at something I am not supposed to see; I am in a place where I am not supposed to be…
But of course, where I really am is standing in front of a black and white, sixteen by twelve inch, gelatin-silver print, placed by its label in space and time. Alicante, Valencia Province, Spain 1933 hangs on the wall of the Fine Art Society, part of an exhibition (Cartier-Bresson, 2016) of fifty prints made under the supervision of the photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, for an American collector, in the 1990s.
Later, I find out more about the picture (Cartier-Bresson, 1933a). It was taken before Cartier-Bresson became a defining figure of photojournalism, differentiating his work through the idea of “The Decisive Moment”. At this time he was simply the dilettante son of a prosperous French family, travelling with his revolutionary (and expensive) Leica camera, finding out what he could do with it.
Cartier-Bresson had spent time in Paris, studying painting and hanging out in his spare time with the Surrealists (Chéroux, pp.15-18). From the former he had absorbed rigorous ideas about geometry in composition and from Surrealism the idea that the intrusion of the random (something in the wrong environment; the subconscious bubbling up into dreams; an everyday object treated with surprising veneration) could transform reality into something considerably more charged.
The previous year, Cartier-Bresson had already created at least one of the images defining The Decisive Moment (fig. 2: Cartier-Bresson, 1932), but this picture is quite different. It will not be included in the book (Cartier-Bresson, 1952) which established the concept in the public mind. The background has not been chosen to be brought alive by the intrusion of chance action; the camera is not static, but instead tracks with (while not quite containing) the lurching movement of the three figures from left to right. And there is obvious collusion between the photographer and the subjects. Indeed, there is even another photograph of two of them in front of the same wall, available on Magnum’s website.
And there is obvious collusion between the photographer and the subjects. Indeed, there is even another taken of two of them in front of the same wall, available on Magnum’s website.
This second picture (fig. 3: Cartier-Bresson, 1933b) lends support to the idea that the central figure is male (vest? – yes – and trousers), the keywords associated on Magnum’s site with both – “Man – 25 to 45 years“; “Woman – 25 to 45 years“; “Homosexual“; “Prostitute” seem to deliver a definitive judgement. “Mischievousness” – another keyword – further suggests the spirit in which Cartier-Bresson and his accomplices set about making the picture.
But, having to some extent cleared up its mysteries, I was still left with something more than a picture recording some fun had by Cartier-Bresson with people he’d stumbled across while – like Brassaï and others in Paris at the same time – combing the seamier side of Alicante. The question remained of why it still held me.
I’m looking up from below the women’s eyeline and three pairs of eyes stare down at me; all three expressions are flat, knowing, yet unreadable. In Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes (1964 p.44) had already highlighted the disjunction between the present (pictured in a photograph) which has passed by the time it is looked at. Then, in the second part of Camera Lucida, Barthes (1981 pp 111-113) considers whether a direct address to the camera can fulfill the role of punctum – a subjective link with something in a particular photograph – creating a link across years, between a picture’s subject and the viewer across years. He concludes yes and I agree; it is here that the power of this image lies.
Whether or not the three people caught by Cartier-Bresson survived Valencia’s fall at the end of the Spanish Civil War (and transvestites and prostitutes wouldn’t have had an easy time under Franco) they would all be dead by now, eighty-four years later. I will never know who they were or exactly what it was that they were acting out, but I do still wonder.
And now Cartier-Bresson is also dead and the prints in the exhibition are all for sale, none for less than eight thousand pounds. If I had the money, it is the picture I would buy from the exhibition. I like it a lot. But it would not hang in my living room acting as a token of value and of my good taste. That would cauterise its mystery. Rather, I would tuck it away around a corner – on the way to the bathroom, perhaps – where visitors, like the viewer inferred by the picture, could stumble across this ambivalent scene, stare a moment and wonder what it was that they had just seen and just why it left them feeling somehow unsettled…
- Barthes, R (1964) Rhetoric of the Image In: Barthes, trans Heath (1977) Image Music Text London. Fontana. pp 32-51
- Barthes, R , trans Howard (1981) Camera Lucida London. Vintage
- Buñuel, L and Dali, S (1929) Un Chien Andalou France
- Cartier-Bresson, H (1932) FRANCE. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. [silver-gelatin print] [online image] Available from: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/Asset/2S5RYDI9CNRQ.html (accessed 13 January 2017)
- Cartier-Bresson, H (1933a) SPAIN. Valencia Province. Alicante. [silver-gelatin print] [online image] Available from: http://pro.magnumphotos.com/Asset/-2S5RYDWDPDPD.html (accessed 10 January 2017)
- Cartier-Bresson, H (1933b) SPAIN. Valencia Province. Alicante [silver-gelatin print] [online image] Available from: http://pro.magnumphotos.com/Asset/-2S5RYDGY9XV.html (accessed 10 January 2017)
- Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1952) Images à la Sauvette Paris. Verve, (also published in English as The decisive moment New York, Simon and Shuster)
- Cartier-Bresson, Henri (2016) Decisive moments. London; The Fine Art Society
- Chéroux, Clément (2008) Henri Cartier-Bresson – New Horizons. London. Thames & Hudson
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A thoughtful and insightful appreciation of the ambiguity and chance of photography. Thanks very much for the inspiration Simon!
A very insightful piece of writing. Although familiar with the photograph,,it had never occurred to me that the middle figure might be male. By the way, did you know that the decisive moment was not the term used by HCB for his body of work!? An American editor applied it while HCB preferred a French title meaning something like snatched images!!?
It’s been ages since I read this, and I think it still stands up, so thanks for giving me a nudge to re-read it. As for the Decisive Moment, I’ve been since I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around HCB’s disdain for the ‘cooking’ side of photography, and quite like the idea of Photography Tartare…