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Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St. Lazare

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932 Speakers: Dr. Shana Gallagher-Lindsay, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Voiceover: This is a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson who is a French photographer. He's known as the father of, or one of the prime examples of, street photography and also photojournalism. This was done in 1932 and this is the very beginning of his career. He worked for several decades beginning in the 1930s. Voiceover: I see. So what makes this photograph so special? Voiceover: It does look just like a snapshot, but this is really the beginning of what we know to be snapshot photography. Voiceover: We're kind of used to images that look like this, but back in 1932, this looked really new in what way? Voiceover: Right, it looked new because, well, first of all, the kind of figure who's leaping, and he's really frozen. There's this pregnant moment below his heel and above the reflection, where if just one second later, of course, he would disturb that whole reflection. Voiceover: Was this possible because of new technology for him to capture this? Voiceover: Yeah, he's using a camera that's recently come to the market called the Leica. It's a 35 mm camera, so it's a handheld really mobile camera that he and other journalists, photojournalists, liked to use. It allows them to capture with split second shutter speed this particular image. Voiceover: Where are we here? What are we looking at? Voiceover: We're in Paris. The image title is the [Place de l' Europe]. It's behind a train station called the Gare Saint-Lazare. It's an odd place. You seem to be pretty high up because you can see the rooftops in the background. Things are fenced, seem to be zoned off, but you're not really sure why it's zoned off. It seems an odd space. Voiceover: Is that a puddle of water there that the reflection is in? Voiceover: Yeah, it's a slightly flooded area. There's construction going on. When he described how he shot this, he said that he was passing by a little construction area and there was a temporary fence with wooden slats and he just stuck the lens through as best he could and happened to see this. Voiceover: We can see that all over the city all the time, those temporary construction sites with little holes to look in some things. Voiceover: Right, but when he's looking at his contact sheets after he's printed these out on a preliminary basis, he would be drawn to this particular exposure because of certain formal things, probably. He likes geometry, so there's a lot of that; in this image there's a lot of matching of geometric form, such as, of course, the reflection of this man's leap. Voiceover: The fence also being reflected. Voiceover: Exactly, the fence repeating. There are the rooftops which are a kind of stabilizing form. So you have movement, but then you also have stability. This is something you get in the Renaissance, in the High Renaissance. They love this kind of thing. Also, there are arching forms in the foreground. Repeated in the background are the sort of advertisements. This is totally urban environment. Voiceover: It's kind of gritty urban. Voiceover: Very. There appears to be an ad for maybe some sort of a circus where you have leaping figures, just like in the foreground, in reality. So it's like life mirrors art or advertising. Voiceover: It's like this balance between movement and very stabilizing forms at the same time. Voiceover: Exactly. There's also the idea of replication and reflection, which is something that photography, of course, is very much about, and that Modernists in general love to construct their works of art around. Voiceover: Are other photographs that he did similar to this? Voiceover: They are, they are. Again, with the geometry and people who reflect structures. Generally he's drawn to the working class. Voiceover: Those kind of marginal areas of the city? Voiceover: Marginal areas, [ruin zones], but there's always a lot of life and vitality in there. (jazzy music)