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Critical commentary on the picture-
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Michel Gabriel, Rue Mouffetard, 1952
The photo that I am going to analyse is taken by the famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1952. He was famous for his candid photography, which was later developed as another kind of art – ‘Street photography’. His contribution towards photography art finally helped him own the name of ‘the father of modern photojournalism’.
The photo mainly captures a boy, Michel Gabriel, who is holding two magnums with his arms, and his face is actually exuding a kind of happiness and confidence which could supposedly be seen on a mature man’s face. There are also two little girls captured in the photo, but their presence is a bit blurred since the boy holding the wine bottles is the main character.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the boy was portrayed as a ‘man’ who was proud to be a drinker. In fact, the relationship between the boy, Michel Gabriel, and the photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was very subtle because actually the boy and the photographer did not know each other; the photographer just shot the boy in a candid way. Therefore, it can be said that the relationship between them is very subtle, which is the photographer vs. the model, or the man with a camera vs. a boy with wine bottles.
In this photo, the theory, Affective fallacy, suggested by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley can be applied. Affective fallacy is supposedly defined as a confusion between the poem and its results, but later this theory is also generally used to apply to viewing photographs, meaning that readers interpret the photographs through his/her personal emotion or affectionateness. The boy is holding two wine bottles with satisfied facial expression; readers like me may view this photo on the basis of intuition that the boy is happy because he could drink alcohol like an adult. However, this interpretation may be wrong since we do not know the intention of the photographer. To be more objective, the boy may just run across something which was intriguing on the street, and the photographer just captured the moment.
Another interpretation would be the boy is just carrying two wine bottles filled with water (or empty) around for fun, which can be inferred from the background of the photo. First, the apartment and street implies that the place where the boy walks is a working class distract. Therefore, wine is possibly not affordable for a child like him; he may just play what popular within the working class area at that time. Second, the ambience of black and white of the photo, the clothing style of the boy, the impressed girls behind him, and the date can also help convince the readers that the boy is playing at the moment.
However, if readers refer to the statement of Cartier-Bresson, the interpretations will be different. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said ‘photography is a way of shouting, freeing oneself, not of proving and asserting one’s originality’, so photography is a mean of telling the story or truth in which it captures the conversation, facial expression, gestures and presents them in a visual way which can be for later reflections. The meanings that are being shouted or freed by the photographer would be the concern about the boy drinking alcohol, about the drinking habits of his parents, and even about the way that the boy lives under the influence of his parents. The statement of Cartier-Bresson is thus in line with the viewpoint of Benjamin stressing that ‘photograph can release meaning that was not perceived at the time’.
There is no doubt that photography can capture an object; it can also capture time in which the moment will last forever. Therefore, the viewpoint from Kracauer is true because he stress that ‘photography captures time- memory outlast time’, meaning that the image together with the meaning would become memory which can be recalled. Taking this photo as an example, it does document the time when people were living in Rue Mouffetard, and also the aura of surrounding area. Therefore, it is a good documentation recording the community life during that period.
Yet, reading an image sometimes goes problematic as the photographer (creator) does not always provide a lucid explanation or his/her interpretation for the photos; therefore, different interpretation can be resulted. Using this photo as an example again, whatever the photographer, the boy, his parents, or even the girls behind the boy, they may have their own interpretations towards this photo. That is why sometimes reading images goes problematic. But I have to say that this ‘problematic reading’ can, to a certain extent, stimulate the imagination of readers, from the surface to the underneath of photos.
With no doubt, the prevalence of ‘street photographs’ or ‘candid photographs’ can be attributable to Cartier-Bresson’s contributions. However, nowadays, this kind of art seems to be abused because you can see a lot of candid photographs through different social networking websites, blogs, etc. However, it has somehow become a flood because most of the photos taken, especially in my hometown Hong Kong, have no meanings; the photographers themselves even do not know what meanings they want to express or deliver to the readers, thus, it is a bit sad because what the readera can access may be just the superficial meanings.
The reader, as well, should also view a photograph in a deeper way in which he or she can access to different dimensions of the photographs. Nowadays, people are inclined to glimpse photographs instead of reading them. He or she may only get the very superficial meanings of the photographs. That is why sometimes we need to view a photograph with theories.
For me, the photographic theories do help me to view a photograph in a deeper and more complex way. I am impressed by what Cartier-Bresson said ‘taking photographs is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression’; it is true because once you press the shutter of your camera, the relationship between the object and you has been set up. However, you cannot deeply understand the object by just glimpsing it. A good photographer captures time; a good reader captures the meanings behind.
Benjamin’s theory on photograph said ‘photograph can confirm ideological thinking’, I absolutely agree to the statement as I think a photograph itself can establish discourse and semantics in its own world; that is why a photo can decode the culture, values whatever of an object or of a particular place. Therefore, I think that reading a photograph is quite similar to reading a text in which readers need to undergo the process of decoding. In a text, readers have to decode the words into image while in a photograph, they have to decipher the hidden meanings (images) into words. It can be said that readers can fully understand the photographs unless they immerse themselves in the hidden dimensions of the photographs. If a reader only views the photo through a glimpse, what he/she can get is superficial.
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