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Posted by on Oct 24, 2012

Life is once, forever: Henri Cartier-Bresson and multimodality

Many thanks to Mary Loftus for drawing this to my attention as it is wonderful. This is referring to a recent Open Culture post on Henri Cartier-Bresson and his short film The Decisive Moment. In it, he discusses photography and what that represents to him as an art form. Very much worth watching. One of the quotes from the Open Culture post was particularly moving.

To take photographs,” Cartier-Bresson once said, “is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

What is so profound about this statement is its understanding of context and the intersection of time, activity, and context. Holding one’s breath, the deep breath before the plunge, the focus of all the faculties towards capture of a moment fleeing this fluid space. A series of stills maybe, just maybe aggregating towards a larger whole. Yet each still is an aggregate composition itself, with light, time, actors, agents, all dangling themselves for attention. Placed together, they are an observational vantage point, a study on the steely gaze of the artist him/herself.

Not to relate everything back to my thesis (too late), but this is the sort of multimodal authority that I can appreciate. Authority as in it would be hard to create a more holistic representation of the object under observation (either the photographs or the film), a more nuanced understanding of context. All the agents at work in these photographs converged at that space and at that time and through the discerning eye of that artist. A textual critique of this film and these photographs would provide detail and offer value, but it would (more than likely) fail to capture the ephemerality of the shifting composition, the urgency of the artist’s capture.

These compositions are also poignant reminders of the frailty and fleetingness of human observation and comprehension, a point which Cartier-Bresson draws attention to. If you make a mistake, you can’t ask the subjects to smile again, to pose again, to look at that light the way they had in the previous shot. It is lost, forever. As Cartier-Bresson refers to in the film “life is once, forever.”

Madrid, Spain. Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004). 1933. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 13 15/16″ (24.2 x 35.4 cm). Gift of the photographer. © 2012 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris

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    • It is stunning, isn’t it, Deborah? What a simple, powerful, apt turn of phrase. Life is once, forever.

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