Henri Cartier-Bresson… last days in Chicago

If you are at all a lover of imagery, art, photography or the human spirit, do yourself a favor and check out the Henri Cartier-Bresson – The Modern Century photography exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago before it closes after this weekend.

Cartier-Bresson is on a very short list of photographers who have had a tremendous impact on who I am as an artist. And I realize I am far from the first photographer to make that statement.

As busy as I am these days, I managed to carve out a few hours to visit the exhibit with a talented designer/artist friend of mine. Even though I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson’s work exhibited in several countries in the last 20 years or so, I continue to feel like a kid in a candy store every time I view his beautiful silver gelatin prints up close with my own eyes. It’s always a wonderful experience to explore an exhibit like this with another artist I respect, discussing what we’re seeing as we take in the hundreds of images before us. It was like visiting old friends as I pointed out the photographs I have grown to love over the years. (Clicking on the links throughout this blog entry will take you to some of my favorite Cartier-Bresson photographs.)

This exhibition is a very complete retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’s work from the 1930s through the end of the 20th century. Probably the most complete collection I have ever seen of his work, all in one place. And even though I consider myself a serious student of his photography, this was the first time I had seen original prints of his work in Russia and Asia he made in the 1970s and 80s.

It was a treat to discuss with my friend what it was that I have always found so compelling about Cartier-Bresson’s work. His sense of composition and timing is simply unmatched. How he composes the depth of so many layers in perfect balance with split second perfection. The world was his studio and to see how he composed his subjects, on the spot, just observing and waiting until the frame was perfectly balanced as the scene unfolded before him. And then with the nearly silent click of his 35mm Leica camera, he had his “decisive moment.”

Working with his, at the time, ground breaking new camera, allowed him to be ready in an instant whenever something caught his eye. I’m guessing that he was probably so skilled at what he was doing that he probably didn’t even need to raise the camera to his eye if a moment unfolded too quickly to frame through the viewfinder.

To see how he balanced the compositions of groups of people always puts a big silly grin on my face. This visit was no different. The intersection of faces looking off in different directions, groups of people choreographed in an uncanny dance, frozen in an instant. The way he could photograph what some might consider odd looking subjects from worlds few people had seen at that time and do it in a way that gave his subjects dignity and at the same time humor, irony, relevance or empathy. Simply masterful work.

Seeing such a collection as this makes it impossible for any artist not to reflect on their own work. We discussed how Cartier-Bresson, with what would now be considered to be a primitive (but extremely well crafted) 35mm film camera, it reminded us that it’s very easy these days to let the technology get in the way of creating our art. The advent of digital photography has been a very welcome addition to our art tool boxes, but what Cartier-Bresson was doing would be extremely difficult, if not impossible with digital cameras.

I can’t tell how how many times in the last few years, I’ve seen a moment appear before my eyes for a second and I know by the time I turn my digital camera on and let the circuitry come to life, those four or so seconds take too long to capture what I saw in that first instant. The fleeting moment is gone. If Cartier-Bresson saw such a moment, he could have made an exposure in under a second with his manual Leica.

It has caused me to rethink what I camera I walk out of my studio with every morning. A manual film camera is more or less always on. Something I will be considering in the coming months. My old Nikon F3, my trusted world traveling companion for so many years, may find itself being called out of semi-retirement shortly.

There was also something special about making the decision about what film I would load each day. Color? B&W? What speed of film for the light I was anticipating that day? All of these decisions had to be made in advance. With digital they can all nearly be made after the fact. It was one of the most difficult parts of my transition from film to digital a few years ago. When I compose an image in the viewfinder, if I had B&W film in my camera, I composed for shapes, light and shadows, each contributing to the “weight” of what was in the frame and how I would balance it. If I was shooting color, I would add how to that how the color affected what my eye was directed to and adjust the composition accordingly.

With digital, I’m always shooting in color. I may choose to make the image B&W during digital processing later at my computer, but the fact that while I’m composing the frame in my camera, I have to ask myself, is this going to be a color image or B&W? If I can’t immediately make a decision, suddenly my ability to compose can be compromised if I decide to put off the decision until I’m sitting at my computer.

We continued to walk through the exhibit discussing this conundrum. We considered the option of shooting in digital B&W mode, which could be a solution, forcing myself to go back to my previous workflow of deciding B&W or color when I loaded the film into my camera and compose accordingly, but I’d have to experiment with that. Part of the advantage of shooting color even though I know the image I’m making will end up as a B&W image, is that by using the red, blue and green channels of my digital image I’m able to accomplish what I used to do with lens filters when I shot B&W film to darken or lighten specific colors into a specific range of shades of gray as they were exposed on the negative.

If I shoot in B&W digital, will I still have my RGB filtering choices? I’ll have to experiment with that. The idea of committing to B&W while I’m shooting is something I’ve missed in my work since I migrated to using digital almost exclusively these days.

Time to crack open the manual and do some tests!

The other disadvantage to digital is the lag time between pressing the shutter and when the camera actually exposes the image. On my pro cameras, this isn’t an issue. The exposure is made milliseconds after I press the shutter. But on some mid to lower end digital cameras, there might be a delay of up to a second or more while the camera takes a light reading and focuses. Too late. It’s even worse on an iPhone. The decisive moment becomes extremely sloppy.

The pictures in and around the Art Institute on this blog entry I took with my iPhone, since I didn’t want to check my camera at the Art Institute’s coat check and was traveling light. The new iPhone 4 can actually make a fairly high quality photograph for a phone camera.

As I walked out of the exhibit into the bright sunlight and saw two bikers approaching me on the street from opposite directions, I quickly swiped my iPhone on, selected the camera app, waited for it to launch and composed the image as the seconds maddeningly ticked away. I tapped the shutter button earlier than I would with my pro cameras, trying to account for the delay in the electronic shutter to try to capture the cyclists before they reached each other in the frame, … and… well… not too bad. A quarter of a second later than what I would have considered the decisive moment… but all in all, not awful.

An incredibly inspiring day. If you’re in Chicago this weekend, go see the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit and reinvigorate your creative batteries! It closes October 3rd.

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