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The Evolution of Documentary Discourse

Photography ‘captures', ‘stops', ‘records' something about physical reality. But there is an invisible element to photography: time. Every photographic image is a manifestation of time; it was created during a specific interval (the duration of exposure) and at a specific instant in the chronology of history. Perhaps the element of time is more significant to the content of a photographic image than what is reflected by the physical world.

We are most preoccupied with interpreting the content of an image because the physical world becomes an object unto itself as manifest in a photograph. Don't we try to comprehend a photograph by determining some sort of equivalence with something we know exists or existed in the physical environment? The element of time disappears from consideration because it has become bound in the photographic object. Oh but we do notice the blur of movement and we can identify an image as having been made at a certain time. But photographs are moreover considered as objects that are part of a catalogue of existence.

The Straight Documentary

It is not surprising that most people who take up photography start by ‘cataloguing' their environment, making very literal images that describe places and objects, then people and events. This follows the psycho-social evolution of the development of photography as a medium of expression. From its birth, photography was immediately used to bear witness the existence of everything seeable. Throughout the entire world every natural phenomenon, every man-made thing was photographed for posterity. Why? To show others what existed elsewhere, where the viewer could not be or go. A style and a tradition were established that continues to this day, as exemplified by the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and even contemporaries such as Lynne Cohen.

Social Documentary

Then the camera was turned on society, on who was doing what. The age of social documentary began. A style and a tradition of static, literal social documents were also quickly established, partly due to large, hard to manoeuvre cameras and ‘slow' photographic materials that required prolonged exposures. But aesthetic concerns were equally important. What were known and accepted as norms for portraying people and human activity had been established in paintings. Society and photographers both looked at the world in this manner. This tradition continued for a very long time. One has just to think of the work of August Sander, Walker Evans or more recently, Irving Penn.

Miniaturization and Democracy

Something important started to happen in the late 1800s. Companies such as Kodak started to manufacture and market relatively small cameras that could be used hand-held. They were intended for use by anyone, not only special practitioners. With the slogan "You press the button, we'll do the rest", the photographic medium became an instrument of expression of the common man. Photography had been democratized. Yes, at first the general public used these cameras according to traditions of cataloguing anything and everything in the individual's environment, but the mobility that was offered by the small camera led to spontaneous visual expression, the snapshot.

The serious practitioners also realized that new technology offered potential of a more spontaneous attitude. Dr. Erich Salomon used the miniature glass plate Ermanox camera, which had a fast f1.8 lens permitting photography in dim light, to capture a new kind of ‘on the run' photojournalistic image. Later he adopted the miniature camera developed by Oskar Barnack that used 35mm cinematographic film. Then came Henri Cartier-Bresson who is considered by some as the father of modern photojournalism. He immediately realized that the Leica camera developed by Barnack could permit him to be the master of candid photography, liberated from the literal and seeking the expressive moment in the flux of life. He developed the ‘street photography' style that has since influenced generations of photographers.


Cartier-Bresson came from a particular background. He had studied at the private art school of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote who he regarded as 'his teacher of photography without a camera'. Cartier-Bresson read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels and Marx. While still studying at Lhote's studio, Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists and was particularly drawn to the idea of linking the subconscious and visual expression. He was very frustrated with his painting and went to the University of Cambridge to study English art and literature. He experimented with photography and soon . Cartier-Bresson read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarm?, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels and Marx. While still studying at Lhote's studio, Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists and was particularly drawn to the idea of linking the subconscious and visual expression. He was very frustrated with his painting and went to the University of Cambridge to study English art and literature. He experimented with photography and soon "understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant" . He acquired a Leica camera with a 50mm lens that he described as an extension of his eye. The small camera gave him anonymity in a public, essential to overcome the unnatural behaviour of those who became conscious of being photographed. This would permit him to capture the world in a state of movement and transformation.

and the Decisive Moment

"I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to 'trap' life - to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes" said Cartier-Bresson. In 1952, his book Images à la sauvette was published. This title is rather deceptive as it means ‘images made hurriedly' or more loosely ‘images on the run' or ‘stolen images'. But Cartier-Bresson was anything but hurried. He says: "While we're working, we must be conscious of what we're doing... We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly..." "The secret is to take your time. You mustn't go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick. So, if you miss the picture, you've missed it."

The English edition of the book was titled The Decisive Moment, a phrase explained in its long philosophical preface. Cartier-Bresson took this title from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz who said: "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment". It became the basic premiss of his photographic style and technique. He states: "To take photographs means to recognize -- simultaneously and within a fraction of a second -- both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one's head, one's eye and one's heart on the same axis."

Although this decisive moment "when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality" became his hallmark as well as the preoccupation of most viewers, critics and art historians, there are other important aspects to his work. He said that "What reinforces the content of a photograph is the sense of rhythm – the relationship between shapes and values." "A photo seen in its totality in one single moment, like a painting, its composition is a melting together, an organic coordination of visual elements." "For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organisation of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organisation alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable." It is clear that for Cartier-Bresson content must be studied and carefully organized into an expressive unit.

Immortalization of the Moment

Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment was not uniquely about capturing a critical instant in the evolution of activity. His attitude was to fix the moment, to hold it stationary. "Inside movement there is one moment in which the elements are in balance. Photography must seize the importance of this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it." "The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box." "Our job consists of observing reality with help of our camera, of fixing reality in a moment." His goal was to freeze fragments of life in immortalizing expressions.

Sanctification of the Image

Surprisingly, he also says that "Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next." Does this mean that Cartier-Bresson considers a photograph to be a solitary statement as one would consider a painting? Certainly others did. From the late 1950s onward, collectors extracted images from their context of origin and sanctified them as objects of devotion on gallery walls. In America Edward Steichen evangelized photography as an equivalent to traditional art forms such as painting, mixing the two on the walls of his gallery. He was so successful that one of his own photographs sold for $2,928,000 in February 2006 at Sotheby's New York auction, second in price to only one other photograph by Andreas Gursky, a lesser known contemporary landscape photographer.

How does one escape the dictates of an art market? How did photographic expression continue to evolve? We will discuss this in the next article: Frank Killed the Grandfather of Photography.

Cedric Pearson
March 2009
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