Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Jon Cartwright talked to us about a picture which is very special to him and, in fact, is one of his main photographic inspirations.
“Asked to choose a photograph that inspired me, the temptation is to pick something obscure or avant garde, something to mark me out as discerning. But the truth is that the photo that made me fall in love with street photography is so famous that I can’t even remember when I first saw it. But I remember how it felt, and how it continues to make me feel.
“‘Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare’ is one of the best known photographs by one of the best known photographers, but it still feels deeply personal too me. When I first saw it it stuck me as perfection – too good to be true. It’s so full of both contrasts and echoes: the stillness of the water against the movement of the foreground figure, his leap mirrored both in the reflection but also in the poster in the background; the curves and parallels, even an observing figure in the background reminding us that there is another observing figure opposite, behind the camera. Academics will talk about its historical resonances as peace would shortly be shattered by a leap into war, but this was all lost on my when I first saw it. To me it was just a triumph of composition, of tension and balance.
“And movement. One of the most exciting things to me about still photography is about how it can capture a sense of movement. Not just when using long exposure to introduce the tangible blur of motion, but particularly without that. Many things come in to play here, but it seems mostly to be about an innate human sense of a gesture that’s unresolved. We know that people do not hover, mid-leap; in fact we recognise the shape of a leap and even know when it’s mid. We feel the still water is about to be disturbed, be play out the action in our heads, and there’s something magical about that to me.
“Although I send more time taking portraits now than I do street photography, but still I’m reminded of this. For me a good portrait is often about gesture, even subtle ones like a flicker in the eye or a tilt of the head. A certain liveliness comes from a familiar but unfinished gesture, and a solidity and solemnity is created by its absence. We know a glance from a stare, and a fixed smile from a fleeting one. Cartier-Bresson coined the term “the decisive moment” and it’s that that still I strive for, be it in the studio or the street.”