Exercise 5.3 A response to Henri Cartier Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare

This is one of those photographs that you can never imagine the world without. That said it is not one of my favourites. You can see the photo here – https://www.magnumphotos.com/events/event/henri-cartier-bresson-photographer-monza/

FRANCE. Paris. Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

Cartier Bresson said that the image was down to luck. He had his camera lens stuck through a hole in the fence, and this is what he ended up with. A suited man leaping athletically over a large puddle with circus and acrobatic signage in the background. I wonder if we know how many other shots he took at the same time, what his contact sheet looked like for this shoot?

Elements of the composition delight me, like the two part circles of scrap in the water, the ladder laid across the puddle to no useful purpose, the inverted V of the man’s legs as he leaps and the V of the reflection, the way his shoes are just clear of the water, indeed the way the surface of the water sits so neatly between the heel of his real and reflected self. The way the ladder in the puddle has led him neatly to what could well be just the middle of the puddle, his leap continuing the path. The shadows and reflections make me happy, including those joyous acrobat silhouettes. The contrast between his motion and the man stood stationary by the fence. And yet. I wish I could see more of him. I wish that he wasn’t on his way out of the frame. I can’t imagine why this well-dressed man would take a short cut that looks so impossible without soaking one’s shoes and trousers. Perhaps he was running late for his train.

Cartier-Bresson set a lot of store by luck. He makes the excellent point that you have to have your camera with you, and be open to possibility, to serendipity. I do get this, but personally I would much rather create my own images and welcome luck into the more technical and/or editing aspects of the work. Perhaps this is because street photography has never enthused me, perhaps it’s a function of my limited development as a photographer. I do know, though, that when I look at this image I get distracted by all my questions.


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