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Author Topic: Henri Cartier-Bresson's portraiture  (Read 10708 times)
Chairman Bill
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« on: September 12, 2013, 11:30:15 AM »
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I've recently added to my photography book collection (and the HCB collection in particular) with Henri Cartier-Bresson's An Inner Silence, a book of his portraits, reproduced in a rather nice tritone. A beautiful book, full of beautiful photography. But here's the thing - many of them are appallingly focused.

As I read through the book, I was struck by the numbers of photographs that, were they mine, would never have seen the light of day, because the focus was so off. Some are sharply in-focus, but plenty more have the point of focus anywhere but the face, let alone the nearest eye. Having noted that, I then looked at some of his composition, and decided that some of that left a bit to be desired too.

OK, well nobody should be above criticism, and I've seen enough of HCB's work to be impressed with his photographic skill, but somehow, criticising him for what many would consider basic errors/faults, just seems wrong.

Am I missing something?
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RSL
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« Reply #1 on: September 12, 2013, 12:31:53 PM »
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I don't think it's wrong to criticize, Bill. But you also have to take into account the equipment and the technique Henri was using for some of those shots. Leica rangefinders, even now, take a second to focus. If you want the kind of portrait Henri was after, by the time you lift the camera and focus, what you were after has disappeared. So he did what I do on the street with my E-P1, he pre-focused. Considering the speed of the film he was using in the early days, f/3.5 (wide open on early, collapsible, Leica rangefinder lenses) was essential for most of his portraits, so he didn't have much depth of field to save him.

Finally, a whole lot of those shots were sudden decisions. His picture of the Curies is a classic example. He came through the door, lifted the camera, and made the shot, before they'd even been introduced. As a result, he got something unique. His portrait of Ezra Pound is better as far as focus is concerned, but if you can believe what Henri wrote about it, he sat in front of Ezra for twenty minutes and neither of them said a word to each other.

In the end, a lot of his portraits are technically faulty, but in most cases he captured something about his subjects that a formal portraitist like Yosuf Karsh would have missed.
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WalterEG
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« Reply #2 on: September 12, 2013, 12:50:54 PM »
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Bill, if you criticise a mythological being the world will be up in arms whether you are right or wrong.

It's a bit like suggesting that Sir Paul McCartney is a worn out old Butlin's busker, well past his use-by date.

W
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Isaac
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« Reply #3 on: September 12, 2013, 12:58:01 PM »
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a mythological being

No, just a saint :-)
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iluvmycam
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« Reply #4 on: September 12, 2013, 01:21:10 PM »
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OP, that is how it is with many of a photog. Their best work is shown first, worst work last. HCB was not know for great portraits anyway.

In any case, you can get some nice shots all messed up when it comes to focus and blur...

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/photobooth/110321_elisabeth-_p4656crop.jpg
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Manoli
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« Reply #5 on: September 12, 2013, 01:40:48 PM »
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... but in most cases he captured something about his subjects that a formal portraitist like Yosuf Karsh would have missed.

Different, very different techniques but in some cases the same end result - 'that fleeting moment' - no better example than than the preamble to Karsh's photograph of Winston Churchill.
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ripgriffith
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« Reply #6 on: September 12, 2013, 01:51:32 PM »
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“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”
― Henri Cartier-Bresson
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RSL
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« Reply #7 on: September 12, 2013, 02:18:11 PM »
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It's a bit like suggesting that Sir Paul McCartney is a worn out old Butlin's busker, well past his use-by date.

According to my information, Walter, Paul is the world's oldest cute boy, not an old busker.

'that fleeting moment' - no better example than than the preamble to Karsh's photograph of Winston Churchill.

Quite right, Manoli. That Churchill classic happened because Karsh jerked the cigar out of Winston's mouth, so he, Karsh, was ready and focused.

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”
― Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri isn't the only one who's expressed that opinion. When it comes to people pictures I'd agree. With landscape, uh uh.

No, just a saint :-)

Isaac, go shoot some pictures.
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Rob C
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« Reply #8 on: September 12, 2013, 02:47:40 PM »
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Bill, if you criticise a mythological being the world will be up in arms whether you are right or wrong.

It's a bit like suggesting that Sir Paul McCartney is a worn out old Butlin's busker, well past his use-by date.

W


I didn't know Butlin's paid that well; learn something every day!

Rob C
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Slobodan Blagojevic
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« Reply #9 on: September 12, 2013, 03:58:18 PM »
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... It's a bit like suggesting that Sir Paul McCartney is a worn out old Butlin's busker, well past his use-by date.

He isn't!? Except as a no-prenup marital material, of course Grin
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Slobodan

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Isaac
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« Reply #10 on: September 13, 2013, 12:15:13 AM »
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Isaac, go shoot some pictures.

Repeating a command demonstrates impotence.
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Rob C
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« Reply #11 on: September 13, 2013, 02:58:37 AM »
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Repeating a command demonstrates impotence.


Or a deaf(ish) dog?

;-)

Rob C
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Isaac
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« Reply #12 on: September 13, 2013, 09:42:18 AM »
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Or unbridled arrogance.
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RSL
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« Reply #13 on: September 13, 2013, 10:25:12 AM »
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Well, we know that not being able to post a picture on LuLa demonstrates photographic impotence.
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stamper
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« Reply #14 on: September 13, 2013, 10:26:27 AM »
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Maybe he doesn't know HOW to post a picture?
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Isaac
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« Reply #15 on: September 13, 2013, 10:32:45 AM »
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... I was struck by the numbers of photographs that, were they mine, would never have seen the light of day, because the focus was so off. Some are sharply in-focus, but plenty more have the point of focus anywhere but the face, let alone the nearest eye. Having noted that, I then looked at some of his composition, and decided that some of that left a bit to be desired too.

Interesting observations -- if you gave examples of specific photos then maybe we could look online (although without expecting to see what's really in focus from a web-sized image, we should see composition).

It's difficult not to evaluate old photographs anachronistically: we are so accustomed to current technical possibilities, we are so accustomed to current styles in photography.

I suppose the charitable approach is to ask - What does this picture achieve? - and allow that as the photographer's likely intention.
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Slobodan Blagojevic
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« Reply #16 on: September 13, 2013, 10:32:58 AM »
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Maybe he doesn't know HOW to post a picture?

How about I somehow find one of his pictures (if any), host it, and then he just provides a link to it? He is pretty good at it. Wink
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Slobodan

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Chairman Bill
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« Reply #17 on: September 13, 2013, 11:18:54 AM »
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Isaac - mostly his composition is masterful, but a few just seemed very ordinary, but maybe that's just be comparison to the others.

The focus issue is something that I think Russ has addressed adequately - equipment of the time, the nature of the image requiring maybe zone focussing (not a precise art) & quick reactions to capture 'the moment', rather than a posed shot. My observation is really that I'd probably bin the out of focus stuff, but maybe I should reconsider in light of HCB's work. Then again, with current kit, there's less excuse to not nail focus.

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Isaac
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« Reply #18 on: September 13, 2013, 02:45:32 PM »
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Then again, with current kit, there's less excuse to not nail focus.

Unless, of course, we do so intentionally -- Blur to the Rescue, "People Pictures: 30 Exercises for Creating Authentic Photographs".
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stamper
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« Reply #19 on: September 14, 2013, 02:42:55 AM »
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How about I somehow find one of his pictures (if any), host it, and then he just provides a link to it? He is pretty good at it. Wink

Then again maybe he doesn't take any pictures. Jose Mourinho is one of the world's top football managers but didn't actually play football. Wink
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