Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Henri Cartier Bresson, the Eye and the Immanent Frame

The retrospective show of Henri Cartier Bresson’s career’s worth of photography at MoMA captures the work of a groundbreaking imagist who wrote the genre of the photo essay, started what is arguably the most important photo-house (Magnum), and retired from full time photography only to take on the movement image and illustration work. His work spanned the world, and the depth of the images and subject matter speak not only to artistic construction, but effective and engaging social critique – an immanent frame.

Any discussion of Henri Cartier Bresson’s photography requires a discussion of the importance of time and framing. Bresson’s own ideas of photography grew out of painting, and his link to fine art informed his photographic work. His own explanations of his work center around the concept of “The Decisive Moment” and an “impassioned eye.” It is these concepts that I want to consider in their relation to the concept of “the frame.”

Bresson’s work has framed some of the most important faces and places of the 20th century and I posit that without his work, new media artists and photographers would be ill-suited to accomplish the depth and breadth required of any photographic medium. His use of time and frame are at the base of this argument.

In considerations of “the frame” Bresson states that, “To take a photograph 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” (2). To extend this idea, we might look to the Deleuzian ideas of context and how the present, past and future converge in genre-breaking artistic constructions, providing for a plane of immanence, a smooth surface upon which to travel towards social change. This “decisive moment” is the capture of a point instance of light, a part of the spectrum, a part of the waves of light, that exist before and after that moment. While I agree with Deleuze’s statements in Cinema 1 where he states that photography is a kind of ‘moulding’: "the mould organizes the internal forces of the thing is such a way that they reach a state of equilibrium,” I don’t agree that the “cast” that is taken in that photography is just the literal “luminous imprint” (25). What I believe is being ignored are the smooth surfaces from which the image was taken and the timelessness of the surfaces within the images themselves.

A good example of this is one of Bresson’s most famous works, and image of a person hopping over the majority of a puddle, the image was created a split second before the person disrupted the surface of the water, this provides an infinity of smooth water and an infinity of conceived splashes and surface disruption. An “impassioned eye” allows for a point instance to exist beyond the instance of itself, thus rendering it not “timeless” but rather, infinite — in understanding, in immanence.

A well-traveled man, open to the experiences of submersive travel and reportage, Bresson was privy to humanity in its various permutations. His work documenting Mexican prostitution is a great example of this, finding the humanity in the painted eyes and in the framing in doors and in doorways. In these images we see multiple framing, both by the prostitute in the hatches in the door, then by the door itself, and finally through Bresson’s camera lens. This multiplicity of frames places the prostitute in a self-referential frame (the hatch), a societal frame (the door), and that of the photographer (the lens). It is the multiplicity that allows for a deepened interpretation of the still — and a static image that transcends the static place of Mexico City in the 1940s and does not simply preserve the moment, but reinforces the forever issues of comodified sex, exploitation and our own referential framing.

--Mike von Wahlde

1 comment:

  1. Mike, I think your ideas on photography are interesting and I encourage you to continue to work them through. I'm a little puzzled here though when you refer (in par 4) to the "timelessness" of the photograph and then (in par 5) say that your example is not "timeless" but immanent. Is this a typo or a contradiction or am I missing something here? I would point out too that commodified sex, exploitation and referential framing are not "forever" issues but contemporary ones: they are the legacy not only of capitalism but the technologies of photography, cinema and new media.