To photograph is to hold your breath whilst all of your instincts converge to capture a fleeting moment in time; it is thus both a great physical and intellectual joy. To photograph is to put into a perfect equilibrium one’s mind, eye and heart. It’s a way of life. —Henri Carter Bresson
Beauty is a subjective entity: we each of us see and appreciate the world differently and this is what draws me instinctively to photography. To photograph artistically is an opportunity to render any subject fascinating through the perspective that you take with your camera and to render an otherwise transient moment timeless in the click of a shutter. This ability to find the beautiful in the ordinary is evident throughout the work of French humanist photographers of 1940s and 1950s Paris, and is a concept that I believe to be fundamental in the creation of meaningful and socially relevant art forms.
In August I visited the Willy Ronis Retrospective exhibition in La Monnaie of Paris and wandering through the displayed photographs I was struck by their capacity to truly communicate Ronis’s way of seeing. Renowned as the “poet of the quotidien” by friends and colleagues, Ronis’s work sheds light on the anonymous and the mundane of Parisian life. His perspective enlightens the Little Parisian (1952) running gleefully with his baguette, Lovers at the Bastille (1957), a woman walking down some Montmartre steps, together with more socially critical pieces such as Popular Front Demonstration (1936), which convey his Communist leanings. Yet regardless of the subject, his shots are seductive to the eye, whether it be through an interesting composition or a striking line of light: for example, the intimacy of Vincent, 5 ans highlights the beauty and transience of childhood quite physically with the momentary fall of light on the child’s arm and hair. Indeed President Sarkozy’s description of Ronis as “the chronicler of post war social aspirations and the poet of a simple and joyous life” reflects the photographer’s ability to transmit important social issues of the day albeit the lyrical handling of his subject.
The work of Henri Cartier Bresson has a similar capacity to encourage the viewer to see and appreciate his city landscape in a revitalised way. His photographic perspective articulates and playfully manipulates any situation to give it an exciting and unorthodox twist. His work manages to convey a constant sense of movement, despite the fact that it is constructed through a plenitude of still photographs. It is as if he is continually on the move himself, with camera in hand; capturing scenes that grab his eye and fascinate his esprit. Within there is a playfulness and love for human spirit which makes you smile, yet this runs parallel to his photojournalistic approach and concern with current affairs. Following the war he produced vast bodies of photo reportage covering India and Indonesia during Independence, the Chinese revolution, the US following the post-war boom and the age-old cultures of Europe as they confronted modernity, shown in magazines such as Life in order to broadcast his subjects to a large audience. Yet alongside this social concern he remained susceptible to the charm of Paris, its rawness and its chaleur. So I think it is this combination of approaches that draws me to Ronis and Cartier Bresson; they are both able to articulate both social and aesthetic critiques within their images.
Through studying this work I have also begun to appreciate the city in a new light, and search out its hidden, fleeting moments to capture with my camera. I have been bewitched by the vivid life of Saint Germain, the bohemian hills of Montmartre, the buzz of the Bastille and Sundays wandering in the Marais; this is a spellbinding city, a place with history deep rooted in its culture, architecture and citizens; which continues to evolve and to renew itself day by day. Surrounded by people, art, gardens and beautiful buildings you are constantly immersed in endless photographic opportunities from which you must deduce those fleeting instances most deserving the focus of your lens.
What I find most captivating in a city flooded with people are those intimate moments you fall upon; a woman feeding her dog in a shop doorway; a little girl leaning across a pond to push out her boat in Jardin des Tuileries; a guitar player immersed in his music on Rue des Abbesses, and I think this captivation arises from the opportunity to select what you find beautiful in the brouillard of an urban landscape. A camera gives you the opportunity to express your individual vision and journey, as nobody else would capture the same shots at the same precise moments as yourself. You are the owner of your camera and so to some extent the owner of the scenes that you encounter. When I travel with camera in hand, it encourages me to seek out the beautiful in every alleyway, every encounter and every expression; similar to the way that painting or drawing forces one to look more closely and decrypt the make up of the world. For example in my shots of children playing in the fountains of the Louvre I sought to convey the spontaneity and wonder of the little girls laughing and playing in the cool waters as an antidote to the sweltering heat of the August afternoon, and whilst photographing artists in Place du Tertre, Montmartre, I was constantly searching out the most captivating angle and fall of light to bring my subjects to life.
Consequently I am beginning to realise how photography is a continual endeavour to perfect and communicate the atmosphere and moment in time that you wish to share by way of one single photograph. Is it really possible that one sole photograph or even a collection can capture the living, breathing expanse of a city? A city of such illuminating, light architecture, Haussmann boulevards and ancient alleyways, numerous street cafés, stunning gardens and people from the world over, with all that contains; intense discussions, arguments, enterprises, ideas that work and ideas that fail, love affairs and friendships… Yet from examining the work of Parisian French humanist photography of this period I believe that these photographers felt and experienced the life of the city and were talented enough to be able to communicate this through their work. Although as an onlooker you have no physical or personal connection with the individuals photographed, the expressive and intuitive way in which they have been captured encourages one to forge a connection nevertheless.
In my view a great photograph falls into place when the photographer engages with his subject, believing in its aesthetic, emotional and social beauty. He believes it deserves to be captured by a lens, appreciated by an audience and thus forever preserved in the continuum of time. And this belief is very much evident throughout the photography of Ronis and Cartier Bresson; you feel yourself transported to a moment, which without one crucial click of a shutter would have been lost forevermore in the transience of time.
To access more of Bryony’s Paris photographs, check out her Photobucket album.