Personal response ‘L’amour de court’

Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary ‘L’amour de court’


Henri Cartier-Bresson comes across as a darling of a man, his simple answers and unassuming way makes for interesting viewing. Early on in part one he says:

‘What matters is to look, but people don’t look, most of them don’t look, they press the button’ (Cartier-Bresson; Part One; 1:21)

I believe he alludes to the way people snap a picture but do not really look or see, they do not observe the world around them. This is even more relevant in the digital world, when memory cards replace film and people can snap away without thought or decision. It appears he is always looking at what is around him even when in conversation with a friend; he takes images whilst on the move. His friend says of Henri in the documentary ‘While others are distracted and unobservant, Henri is on the lookout ready to react’

‘To learn to look is to go to the Louvre’ (Cartier-Bresson)

There is no lessons in seeing or looking, I believe Henri, who appears naturally inquisitive, suggests that to learn to look is to take it upon yourself to investigate. To look at the work of others and to open your eyes to it.

In part two Henri Cartier-Bresson looks at his now famous and iconic decisive image of the leaping man in Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare. ‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’ Cartier-Bresson is asked, ‘No’ Cartier-Bresson replies.

‘Its always luck’, ‘It’s luck that matters’ (Cartier-Bresson; Part two; 1:00)

It was apparently taken in between two planks and Cartier-Bresson himself did not see the image through the viewfinder. He was obviously inquisitive by nature, taking an image based on something he could not see clearly? This is apparently one of only two images of Cartier-Bressons that were ever cropped in post production. In fact he mentions later in the documentary that he didn’t see his photographs as he would post his rolls of film to Paris or Bombay where they would then be developed. What mattered to him seems to be simply documenting what he saw.

He puts a great deal of success for a photograph in its geometry; he intuitively knows the ratios and proportions to make an image work. He cites:

‘1.618…3.1416…The golden number’ (Cartier-Bresson; Part two; 2:00)

This is the Fibonacci sequence or otherwise known as the golden ratio. He is evidently self-critical of his images, He is even seen to ask in part five of the documentary to either write a comment on or have removed images that he is not happy with for the National Library despite the obvious praise from others. The way he himself sees the photograph appears more important than the accolades bestowed on it, he appears to be a perfectionist.

He displays a warm sense of wit throughout the documentary and it is apparent from the comments that he holds many other ‘artists’ in high regard. He claims to have stopped taking photographs despite still seeing the opportunities to take them but is now focused on drawing and perhaps seeing through his pencil rather than his lens.

Has this documentary changed my view of the decisive moment? Not really, I still think the decisive image is one where the action in the image, composition and photographer collide. However I think there is more luck involved, perhaps it is more about photographing what you see and understanding the deeper meaning of what you are seeing not simply snapping what is in front of you. Then luck might have it that you caught the moment and the composition falls into place, but what matters most is to see! 

Thoughts on ‘The decisive moment’

I wanted to explore my thoughts on this phrase BEFORE I started to read and research into so that I could compare my views and ideas surrounding it.

Decisive – adjective

1. having the power or quality of deciding; putting an end to controversy; crucial or most important:

Your argument was the decisive one.

2. characterized by or displaying no or little hesitation; resolute; determined:

The general was known for his decisive manner
(, viewed 19.01.2017)
A decisive moment therefore is one of decision, deciding the crucial or important moment, displaying little or no hesitation.
In terms of photography and more importantly street photography this seems to relate to the photographer as ‘their’ decisive moment. But what if we were trying to capture a subjects decisive moment? We cannot know what is decisive to them or are we looking for a turning point, similar to decisive moments in history?
If we are looking to capture an image of someone jumping over a puddle for example who is the decisive one? The man could have made the decision to jump moments before and we have merely captured his action, therefore this would be an action shot. Or does the decisive moment belong to the photographer in which it is his decision in that split second moment to press the button? He saw the man and the composition align and did not hesitate.
I believe the decisive moment lies with the photographer, we cannot read minds, we cannot ‘see’ when subjects have made a decision, we can only see the action and consequence.
The decisive moment is pushing the button when the photographer sees that everything is aligned…subject, composition and moment.
This therefore means that the decisive moment could be a variety of subjects, but there needs to be an action or movement. An image of a static object such as an orange would not offer much in terms of a decisive moment, not unless you waited for the moment the fruit started to turn. Street photography is an obvious choice as subjects are full of action and choosing areas for composition could provide an interesting image. But landscapes can offer a decisive moment, the moment when the sun sets, shadows fall or the clouds change for example.

Exercise 3.3

1. What do the timeframes of the camera actually look like? If you have a manual film camera, open the camera back (make sure there’s no film in the camera first!) and look through the shutter as you press the shutter release. What is the shortest duration in which your eyes can perceive a recognisable image in bright daylight?
Describe the experiment in your learning log.
2. Find a good viewpoint, perhaps fairly high up (an upstairs window might do) where you can see a wide view or panorama. Start by looking at the things closest to you in the foreground. Then pay attention to the details in the middle distance and, finally, the things towards the horizon. Now try and see the whole landscape together, from the foreground to horizon (you can move your eyes). Include the sky in your observation and try to see the whole visual field together, all in movement (there is always some movement). When you’ve got it, raise your camera and take a picture.
Add the picture and a description of the process to your learning log.


Research point

Watch the Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary ‘L’amour de court’  (‘Just plain love’, 2001) available in five parts on YouTube:
Write a personal response to the film in the contextual section of your learning log, taking care to reference properly any quotations you use (300–500 words).
• Whenever you read or watch something, get into the habit of putting anything you take directly from the source in quotation marks and note down full bibliographic details. If you do this, you won’t have to spend ages hunting for half-remembered references later – and you won’t inadvertently plagiarise someone else’s work. Always use Harvard referencing; print out the study guide on the student website and keep this to hand.
• Be very careful about what you put on your blog. Take a moment now to read what the OCA learning blog study guide says about copyright law and fair use or fair dealing.
Today the decisive moment is often criticised for having become something of a stylistic cliché. In the decades after the 1930s, the most creative phase of Cartier-Bresson’s street photography, thousands of photographers learned the techniques of the ‘moment décisif’ – leading inevitably, perhaps, to derivative work.
Another criticism of the decisive moment is that it somehow just misses the point of our contemporary situation. Reviewing Paul Graham’s recent photobook The Present, Colin Pantall writes:

…what he [Graham] wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.

Zouhair Ghazzal agrees that the decisive moment has become more of a cliché than a reality, although he believes it can contain something essential of life.  But in a similar way to Pantall’s interpretation of Graham’s work, Ghazzal finds the contemporary urban landscape just ‘too monotonous and dull’ for the decisive moment.
Despite these criticisms, Cartier-Bresson does still seem to speak of something essential in photography. ‘Observational skills’ are mentioned in the assessment criteria but unfortunately there are no sure methods available to learn how to look. As with composition, it would seem to be something that is just discovered (or re-discovered?) for oneself.

Project 3 – ‘What matters is to look’

‘I slipped the camera through [the railings] but I couldn’t see, that’s why it’s a bit blurry… I couldn’t see a thing through the viewer.’ ‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’ ‘No.’ ‘That was lucky.’ ‘It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance, that’s all. If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.’
(Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘L’amour tout court’,

Quite incredible, isn’t it, that one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century was down to luck? Luck, chance, ‘hazard’ – whatever it may be, the influence of Cartier-Bresson has been profound, both in photojournalism through the Magnum agency, which he co-founded, and in street photography generally.
Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) discovered another of the possibilities of 35mm cameras and high-speed film which he described as the ‘decisive moment’: the ‘moment at which the elements in motion are in balance’.

Exercise 3.2

Start by doing your own research into some of the artists discussed above.
Then, using slow shutter speeds, the multiple exposure function, or another technique inspired by the examples above, try to record the trace of movement within the frame. You can be as experimental as you like. Add a selection of shots together with relevant shooting data and a description of your process (how you captured the shots) to your learning log.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa (Born Endre Erno Friedmann in 1913)  was one of the four photographers that founded the Magnum picture agency in 1947. His photographs of the D-Day landing in Normandy taken in 1944 are iconic images of the war. He has been quoted as saying:

‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’

This comment could relate to distance of the subject but I think it is more about how personal you are to the subject. Perhaps Capa felt emotionally drawn to take sides in the wars he photographed. He is also quoted as saying:

‘The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda’

His grainy blurred image of the D-Day landings feels authentic and captures the movement in the scene. I imagine as a war photographer that Capa was moving along with the soldiers hence the blur of motion, it has a feeling of chaos. Apparently many of his negatives from the landing on Omaha Beach were burnt in the darkroom but luckily a few survived perhaps this ‘accident’ also added to the final outcome of these images.

There appears however to have been much debate over the authenticity of one of his earlier images ‘The Fallen Soldier’. The image depicts a loyalist soldier taken at the moment his is shot by a bullet during the Spanish civil war, an extremely decisive moment in time. An article by Richard Whelen in 2002 provides interesting information and research which disputes the theory that it was posed.

Robert Capa continued as a war photographer  / photojournalist until his death by a landmine in 1954.

I have found his images of Chartres taken in August 1944 particularly moving, My father was born in occupied France and has told me stories of how his older siblings were sent to work for the Germans, the curfews and the punishment if you broke them. He also told me of the lines of ladies outside getting their heads shaved to mark them as German lovers and the sad tales of babies being drowned in Lac Leman. The truth was they simply made a choice in how to survive, My grandmother chose to become the lover of a local farmer so that her children would not suffer hunger. I wonder what became of the women whose heads were shaved once France was liberated and how their fellow citizens treated them?

What I have noticed when I look at the various images that Robert Capa has taken is that most often everything in the image has a reason to be there. There is very little distraction by other people not relevant to the scene. He has focused entirely on what we are supposed to see, perhaps this too explains his comment about getting close, perhaps he gets close enough to exclude what does not need to be there. Framing the image in the lens.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank born in 1924 in Switzerland appears to have had a varied photographic career. He  worked as a commercial photographer in Switzerland and as a fashion photographer in New York for Harpers Bazaar and later Fortune and Vogue. He also moved into making movies in the late 50’s.

His photo book ‘ The Americans’ was a collection of images taken as he travelled across America in the mid fifties. It shows America as Frank saw it, not necessarily how the Americans wanted it to be seen. Perhaps this was easier for him as he was not born an American so could see it though the eyes of an outsider.

I found the snapshot style and images of Robert Frank interesting, His photographs contain blur and grain which add to the sense of feeling, time and place. I was interested to discover his use of cropping to get the finished image, the image elevator girl was cropped from a larger photo which keeps her as the only ‘in focus’ subject. His subject choices reminded me very much of Walker Evans ,however, whereas Walker Evans got to know his subjects Frank did not. Robert Frank took images and portrayed what he saw or felt but did not get into the field of representing the subjects feelings or trying to tell the individuals story rather his own view.

Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman’s work seems to mostly focus around self portraits of Woodman herself. Born in Colorado in 1958 to parents that were both ‘creative’ people she died an untimely death in 1981 by jumping from a window and committing suicide. In her images she conceals her identity in a number of ways, sometimes using motion to blur herself so that she looks almost ghostly, or by hiding in her surroundings. I cant help but look at the images and read a sadness into them that actually may not have been meant to be there. I wonder if I would have seen them the same way had I not know of her suicide? I am predisposed to look at Diane Arbus’s images in a similar light. Interestingly I have played with capturing photographs of my shadow as I do not like to be in front of the camera but I am interested in capturing the rare moments of my unrecognisable form. It feels odd to see myself! I feel that she may have been happier behind the camera but needed a muse to work with. She experimented with light, reflections and movement and her images feel as though she was ‘finding’ herself, the title of her series ‘Self-deceit’ makes me think she was eluding to this. A number of my slow shutter speed images (Below) have a ghostly quality which I find interesting , they remind me of Woodman’s ethereal images.

Maarten Vanvolsem

Interestingly I did not find a vast amount on the work of Maarten Vanvolsem however I had come across the slit scan process whist I was looking at the fast shutter speeds and the time machine. I was fascinated how the images were created using a line of pixels from each frame. I have since downloaded an app to experiment  with this creative style of photography.

Experiments with shutter speed


Some of my experiments worked better than others. By simply choosing a very slow shutter speed I was able to put myself in the image with a ghost-like quality:

I was also able to add an ethereal , ghost-like quality to my children and to show the flicker of flames over a period of time:

I then experimented with moving my camera and panning during a slow shutter speed, this resulted in the effect of motion albeit no one item was in focus. It would be good for a sensation of spinning  or moving motion:

In the next set I tried moving my camera erratically or in an up and down motion whilst the shutter was still open, the second image is of my lamp and the light on the lamp coupled with the motion has given it an abstract quality which I really like:

Out on the street I experimented with using a slow shutter and ‘panning’, following a chosen subject with the camera to get a feeling of motion with the subject still in focus, this was not as easy as I hoped but I think this is something that requires a great deal of practise:

I also played with zooming my lens whilst using a slow shutter, I like the feeling of the crowds and there is an almost overwhelming, insanity feel to the image:

With a slow shutter I tried to remove / dissolve people, this would work better if I had slowed the shutter further still and used a tripod rather than using my camera handheld:

Or simply focusing on one stationary subject whilst the world around continues in motion, this one has worked well.

44mm, ISO 400, 1/3 Sec, f16 focused on man in the blue coat who was stationary in the crowd



Project 2 – A durational space

While some photographers try to resolve the problem of capturing movement within a still image by freezing it, others prefer to leave a trace of movement within the frame. One of the best-known examples of movement blur is Robert Capa’s image of an American soldier wading ashore under fire  on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D Day, June 6, 1944. If you view Capa’s Normandy Landings portfolio on the Magnum website you can see that he captured many sharper and clearer images, so why has this shot become the iconic image of D Day? The grain and blur seems to lend a sense of authenticity to the shot, just as noise and pixelated jpegs work as aesthetic codes for ‘realism’ in news photography today.
Movement blur as style (rather than accident or necessity) was used creatively by Robert Frank (b.1924) in his photobook The Americans (1958). Referring to Frank’s 1955 image Elevator Girl, Geoff Dyer imagines the elevator door as a shutter curtain whilst also referencing the idea of the road trip contained within Frank’s book:
An elevator door is about to close, like a shutter that will open again, for a moment, not on another floor but in another building or another city. (Dyer, 2012, p.216)
The length of time that can be recorded in the frame is unlimited if you use the bulb function on your camera. (An automated release is useful if you don’t want to keep your finger pressed on the shutter release for long periods of time.) The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto explored very long timeframes in his Theatres series, opening the shutter at the beginning of a film and closing it again as the credits rolled. These photographs are of American ‘movie theatres’ but the New York-based Sugimoto brings a particularly Japanese concern with ‘presence’ to his work. He explains his philosophy in a simple and clear way in the ‘Contacts’ film, which is available on YouTube:
German photographer Michael Wesely used even longer exposures of between two to three years in his documentations of the renovation of the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Wesely’s technique seems to capture totally new information about the universe on camera film. Strange streams of light in the sky ‘put our existence, us, our planet into context with the Dance of the Universe, which coexists on an entirely different time scale [from us]’.
See: [accessed 25/09/14])
OCA student Alasdair Gill recorded the passage of light through his home over periods of time. He captioned the images simply with a timestamp showing the duration of each exposure.
I began to study how light changed through my home through the course of a day and set up a camera in different positions to capture this ever shifting phenomenon with an automated shutter release system. (from Alasdair’s learning log)
When the movement of the camera rather than the subject is recorded in the frame, it’s usually regarded as a problem, requiring a faster shutter speed or a tripod to correct. The creator of the image below recorded the trembling movement of her hand due to Parkinson’s disease in a series of delicately fragile and expressive shots of night-time traffic on the Kings Road in London.
Artist and researcher Maarten Vanvolsem also uses a moving camera, for example using the strip-scan process to photograph dancers. The technique captures single lines of a frame sequentially, building up the image over time – and is cheaply available as a smart phone app. Vanvolsem observed that if the camera is moving while the shutter is open there is no single viewpoint and therefore no one-point perspective. The moving ‘stills camera’ creates a different perception of space as well as time.
Movement, of course, is the natural province of cinema: at 24 frames a second the eye naturally reads a sequence of frames as movement. Chris Marker used stills from a simple Pentax Spotmatic 35mm film camera to make the classic time-travel film La Jetée (1962). Cinematographer Christopher Doyle shot the opening scene to Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) at 1/8 second, depicting the chase scene through a crowded Hong Kong market with movement blur, which is unusual in cinema. The poetics of time in the film are described by Mike D’Angelo in ‘How Wong Kar-Wai turned 22 seconds into an eternity’: [accessed 16/06/14].
Can the shutter create psychological drama in an image, similar to Guy Bourdin’s use of deep depth of field (Part Two)? Gerry Badger sees the work of Francesca Woodman (1958–81) as combining ‘personalised psychodramas with the temporal and spatial displacements of long exposures and blurred movement’ ( francesca-woodman/ [accessed 16/06/14]). In other words, for Badger, Woodman’s emotional state (she committed suicide aged 22) is expressed visually through both time and space in her photography.

Assessment criteria – Quality

Look again at the assessment criteria and you’ll see that the descriptors for ‘Quality of outcome’ seem to cover a lot of ground. As mentioned previously, Expressing your Vision aims to explore the ideas behind the techniques, and ‘communication of ideas’ is one of the descriptors for this criterion.
What is a ‘good idea’? Probably a good idea shouldn’t be too obvious or derivative. Maybe, in the final analysis, you only need one good idea to sustain a whole career in photography (Project 3 is about one such idea). Whichever way you see it, the communication of ideas will become more and more central to your work as you progress through Levels 2 and 3 of the degree programme.
One of the ways to communicate discernment and the development of your ideas is through the contact sheet. A digital contact sheet is just thumbnails of a sequence of shots, of course, but the important thing is that it’s an unedited sequence. Including an unedited sequence will allow your tutor to see and comment upon your selection process, which is an important part of the creative process as Boris Groys explains:

At least since Duchamp, it has been the case that selecting an artwork is the same as creating an artwork. That, of course, does not mean that all art since then has become readymade art. It does mean, however, that the creative act has become the act of selection. (Groys, 2013, p.93)

The editing process is probably at least 50% of the work of being a photographer, and what you find interesting in an image will evolve over your working life, so make a practice of keeping rather than deleting your outtakes.
You should annotate your contact sheets. As a minimum, indicate your ‘selects’, together with relevant shooting data and brief observations. This will add significant value to a contact sheet.
‘Quality’ also covers the presentation of your digital and print submissions. For a guide to the submission of digital files please read ‘Preparing Digital Image Files’ on the student website: tutor_reports_and_assessment.pdf
The assignment for Part Three is a print assignment. This will give your tutor the opportunity to feedback to you on print quality in plenty of time before assessment.

Exercise 3.1

Using fast shutter speeds, try to isolate a frozen moment of time in a moving subject. Depending on the available light you may have to select a high ISO to avoid visible blur in the photograph. Try to find the beauty in a fragment of time that fascinated John Szarkowski. Add a selection of shots, together with relevant shooting data and a description of your process (how you captured the images), to your learning log.

In my first attempt at capturing a ‘Frozen’ moment I have realised I could have done with an extra pair of hands. I tried to use what was immediately available so I sourced items from the kitchen, I had previously taken some images a few weeks earlier , before building work began in my home, and I have noticed the new images have a lot of grain. I am wondering if it is the fast shutter and high ISO to blame or dust in my camera?

Below is a selection of images taken at 1/8000, the fastest shutter setting on my camera it would seem.

Flicking the pages of a book was really simple but I think the fast shutter speed adds nothing to the image as the frozen pages of the book are not something we do not usually see with our own eyes. These were taken with the camera held in my right hand whilst I flicked through with my left.

The sieved flour worked really well, I think this would look great with a dark background to contrast with the white of the flour but overall I am pleased with how these first attempts came out. Luckily I had a tripod to steady the camera but I still had to both sieve the flour and push the shutter button so it was a bit of a juggle.

The food colouring in the water also looked good and provided interesting images, in the last of these images you can even see the black coloured droplets being added in mid-air. I also used the tripod to steady these shots.

The ripples of milk in the red bowl looks interesting and the ones taken afterwards using a steel funnel look very abstract. I had more hope for the water droplets but I think I need more contrast for these to work effectively although I have captured the odd crown and droplet, I also think the grain on the images does not help with these. These were all taken hand-held.

The eggs were a challenge, I got to a total of three broken eggs before I admitted slight defeat (I may re-visit this), in these images the best I captured was the egg in mid-air rather than on contact. Again I used the tripod so that I could free up one hand to drop the eggs.

I also experimented with a variety of fast shutter speeds to see if there were better selections to be found than simply the fastest.

I think the above images show that the ‘fastest’ shutter speed is not always necessary in capturing a ‘Frozen’ moment, similar images have been achieved by a reduced shutter speed which has in turn reduced the ISO. I think it depends on the speed of the subject matter as the how fast the shutter needs to capture the moment. A speeding bullet would need a super fast shutter speed and super fast reactions whereas falling flour is at a much slower speed so does not require such a fast shutter to capture the same motion.

I really like the abstract quality to some of these images.

I have continued to research the ‘frozen’ moment and in doing so I came across the work of Corrie White, Her water drop images are other worldly and mesmerizing. In an article written by Jonathan Petre for the Mail on Sunday (10 Dec 2011, accessed 09.03.17) Corrie White eludes to her use of ‘the time machine’. The time machine is an electronic device which is a timer linked to the camera, this can be purchased with liquid release valves and other such devices to trigger a camera or flash. It is a bit too costly for me to obtain to experiment with but interestingly I did gain a tip which I will try out. Using milk, particularly coloured milk seems to yield better results and also adding Xanthan gum as a thickening agent to the water or I presume the milk too. I have also discovered that using a flash is hugely important to the final result, my flash never fired. No surprise really after learning that Edgerton invented the electronic flash!

So my plan is to take a short trip to Sainsbury’s to grab some milk and some xanthan gum, I plan to rig up a zip lock bag with a small hole to free up my hands. I also think I need to experiment with taking the pictures in a darkened room and I am considering if I need to count the seconds between the release of the drop to it landing so I can set a time delay on my camera. I am hopeful that it might help me to capture the correct moment that the droplets hits the water below? I could also experiment with adding colour via backgrounds as well as food colouring ,perhaps adding glycerine or soap to the water to get a variety of results. Who knew that this research would lead me to look into molecular chemistry!

I revisited this armed with Xanthan gum and a flash gun! I was able to control the flow of drops much better by using a Ziploc bag filled with liquid in which I poked a pin hole. This meant I was able to count the seconds between drops. I set up the flash in a darkened room and was elated when I first started capturing drop images. Sadly this elation turned to frustration when I discovered my memory card had corrupted and I lost all the images I had taken. I set up another rushed attempt in a different location but the images were once again blurred as I didn’t have the luxury of the darkened room and flash. It was a learning curve for me which I found interesting, but it was a learning curve in self-control and discipline. I don’t think this type of photography will be my forte and I imagine I would end up throwing my equipment out of the nearest window in frustration!

My rushed return attempt setup in my rather bright kitchen!

The results:

Adding the gum definitely helped as did controlling the flow, I would just need to work on the lighting set up and making sure my second memory card was set up as a back-up!