“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

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“He had his little Leica,” [fashion photographer Helmut] Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”
– Dana Thomas, Newsweek, 6/1/03

Helmut Newton by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson joking can be explored on multiple levels.

By “condemning sharpness” (clarity is a closer translation of his French “netteté”) in an over-the-top radical voicing, he was poking a bit of fun at the high-dudgeoned political correctness pervasive in art and lit criticism.

Newton clearly enjoyed Cartier-Bresson’s tongue-in-cheekiness.

As Mark Twain once said, “Humor is the good-natured side of a truth”, and in this sense it can be said that Cartier-Bresson was affirming his belief that clinical sharpness was an overrated photographic virtue. He didn’t consider softness per se a virtue, but neither did he value clarity for clarity’s sake. I imagine him saying that an image needed the clarity it needed, and not a bit more. The title of his famed photographic collection, The Decisive Moment, says it: for him resolution was a matter of timing rather than resolution. He was a photojournalist for whom “the moment” and composition trumped photographic clarity.

 

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, ca. 1930 - Martin Munkácsi

 

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika,
ca. 1930 – Martin Munkácsi

Cartier-Bresson wrote that after seeing this photograph “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment.”

 

“People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing” -Cartier-Bresson

 

 


Sharpness vs. the Decisive Moment

Different types of photography have different holy grails. Compare Cartier-Bresson’s desire to “fix eternity in a moment” to Ansel Adams’ goal: tack sharp with every tonal value correctly pre-envisioned. Adams carefully planned exposure and film development of each shot using his zone system; Cartier-Bresson didn’t process his own images, but simply gave his film to a trusted processor, and rarely did any cropping from his full frame shot.

This would be a good stepping-off point to discuss photography in the digital age, and how it affects our perception of the art, but that will have to wait for subsequent posts.


Invasion of Normandy Beach, Robert Capa

 

Invasion of Normandy Beach, Robert Capa

It never occurred to me until later that in order to take that picture, Capa had to get ahead of that soldier and turn his back on the action.
– John Morris, Capa’s editor at LIFE magazine


 

Henri Cartier–Bresson (1908–2004)
Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris

 

 

 

 

“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. The writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. There is also a period when his brain “forgets,” and his subconscious works on classifying his thoughts. But for photographers, what has gone is gone forever.”
-Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers