Saturday, November 30, 2013

Henri Cartier-Bresson (A Different Twist)

"I’m not interested in documenting. Documenting is extremely dull and I’m a very bad reporter."

Henri Cartier-Bresson *

Here are some of my recent thoughts on the famous man held by some to be the father of modern photojournalism

As a founder of Magnum, the photojournalist world rightfully embrace Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). His influence in that circle can never be underestimated. That said I think it can be beneficial to see his work and it's connection to the modernists he knew. Hence forth for brevity I will refer to him as HCB.

all images videos etc; property of various owners. Magnum, HCB foundation, Cartier-Bresson, etc

 HCB's first book with it's Matisse cover.

It is not that the fine art photo world did not embrace HCB (1908-2004). It's his similarity in commitment to the aesthetics he swam in that makes him much more like Edward Weston (1886-1958), than most would think. Weston (I'm guessing) is a man not generally studied in photojournalism circles. 

Anyone who understands Weston might argue they are in no way similar because Weston used a big slow camera and was considerably more plotting in his approach, while HCB used small fast cameras, was more intuitive in his approach. That is certainly true and their contributions at least on the surface seem quite different but.....


Weston and Cartier-Bresson together are like a linchpin into modern photography, much as say Cezanne and Van Gogh would be for painting. Weston and even more so Stieglitz (1864-1946) is generally regarded as the modern prototypical "fine art photographer".

It seems from my perspective many photographers still have no particular knowledge of Mr. Stieglitz's contributions, his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and the undeniable impact his embracing of modern art had on all most every avenue of photography. 

To note HCB was eventually deeply affected by his associations with some of the very modernists Mr. Stieglitz brought to his Manhattan galleries. At the time Steiglitz showed these artists most people were not open minded enough to digest what they had to offer.

Steiglitz 1907

While Weston was friends with Deigo Rivera, Robinson Jeffers, Henrietta Shore and a big fan of Brancusi, one must remember HCB's association with the artists Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti and others. 

HCB is an artist first a photographer second. His interest has always been pictures first, media second. Before photography he studied painting and drawing. At the end of his career he tires of making photographs and spends his allotted earth time drawing.

To me it seems his most interesting images are rarely his reportage images, in fact it is fascinating he tells Robert Capa "I am a surrealist" and Capa tells him "say your a photojournalist if you want to make photographs".  I am guessing here Capa means if you need food and shelter you will be better served by calling yourself a journalist. The idea of HCB calling himself a "journalist" is well portrayed here nytimes/lensblog

In fact before he falls for photography, he struggles greatly to find a voice with painting. HCB begins to relate a great deal to the surrealists. At one point in Paris he socialized with them. This is not a crowd your typical photojournalist in the making would break a lot of bread with.

The following quote is from Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work by Peter Galassi  
"...The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings."


"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.



The little human detail can become a leitmotiv."
Henri Cartier-Bresson




  Matisse about 1914-19




Matisse 1908

Matisse about 1912-18



Matisse about 1950-55


I think many photographers miss the point that if we are organizing information and or shapes in rectangles failing to study the other 2d arts can be a great loss. Only letting oneself be affected by photography may be short changing oneself. 

See specific Matisse on right.

Above, two Matisse views of Notre Dame, both are very involved with how to place shapes in rectangles, no matter the content. This does not mean content is absent, only that the image maker has cared deeply if the picture has a strong voice by giving great energy to its graphic structure. Matisse was also a pioneer and explorer of creating new picture spaces.


Excellent example of using shapes while still working the magic of the decisive moment.


By no means do I claim to be a HCB expert. I was always under the impression he never cropped images. I saw a massive HCB exhibition in the late 70s where each print was surrounded by a black edge.

Often at least at this time that was an implication to the viewers you were seeing an image made from an un-cropped negative. One gets this effect from filing out the opening of a negative carrier - creating a black border on the print.

Call me ignorant or uninformed I was shocked upon discovering that the image was severely cropped (see book image below). It is in many ways his most iconic image. Maybe this is newer info, I have not kept up with all the writing on him.

As it turns out in the 1998 film below he explains how he took this image (and what he didn't like about it) offering insight & dismantling the myth. He didn't print his own work but I am quite sure he had very specific instructions for his printer(s). 

Most ambitious photographers (at least in respecting the myth of the un-cropped HCB image aesthetic) would reject such an image from a contact sheet in a millisecond. 

The minute the water molecules are moved by that foot hitting the water the (that) "decisive moment" is no longer available. Well that was the idea associated with a lot of his images. 

Now for me and many others this image has lived in our consciousness for many many years. The moment before a foot connects with a surface has been elevated enough to alert photographers of the interest of things of it's ilk. There is probably no serious photographer "art schooled", "technical schooled", or "journalism schooled" who is not familiar with it.

If one digs around there were certainly forerunners pointing photographers towards such moments, Muybridge and his horse studies in 1872 and so on. Maybe even Degas's paintings. If one studies Degas you will find he utilized photographic knowledge.

Since this HCB image most of us have reformulated and rethought (if only subconsciously) that original idea and we understand there are many decisive moments. 


My first HCB book I purchased in 1979 or 1980.

Found this used in 2010 while photographing in Seattle.

Below is fantastic documentary from 1998 about his life and work.  The film was directed by Patricia Wheatley, who interviewed the 90-year-old Cartier-Bresson to learn more about his lifetime of creating art.

* Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1971 interviewed by
Sheila Turner-Seed

Thursday, October 10, 2013

William Albert Allard

It is funny while talking to the Leica rep. at LOOK3 this past summer, someone passing through spoke briefly to the rep., who I thought looked familiar. Sure enough it was Bill Allard who I last saw in 1982 at an opening for his work from  Vanishing Breed: Photographs of the Cowboy and the West 

Living in Charlottesville, Virginia - here is an excellent article on Bill Allard from Virginia Living

His current book 5 decades 

NGM video on first image below and it's positive impact;

all images below (c) William Albert Allard, (c) National Geographic if or when applicable

Friday, August 9, 2013

photo-news (McCurry, Hosoe, Stewart)

I was long ago introduced to the work of Eikoh Hosoe (dark, brooding, mystical, theatrical....) I believe it was through Aperture.  Below is a link to some of his work from americansuburbx (one of my favorite blogs).

Eikoh Hosoe (

Below is someone's work I have been unaware of, Todd A. Stewart. Just brought to my attention through Lenscratch (another favorite).  I particularly like the easy flowing narrative I perceive here. My favorite time of year is summer and I can very much feel even the density of the air both emotionally and atmospherically here. This group of images effortlessly resonates with me.

Todd A. Stewart ( 

Well known for his NGM iconic cover image, here is a group of images from Steve McCurry's favorite part of the planet. He just seems to be in the air there....

Light of Faith

Friday, August 2, 2013

Field Notes-2 (2013)

"kid at ocean's edge" , (c) george elsasser

above (c) george elsasser 
portfolio: mammals at the beach  
image: womb

Updating a few things here:

June 2013 I enjoyed LOOK3 and seeing new friends I met in Charlottesville. I came back recharged as I hoped I would. If one has not been I find this a lonely journey, so an occasional festival is excellent way to connect with like minded spirits. The internet is fantastic for making friends in the bigger photography world.  Even if initially shy like me, festivals develop community despite it.  Many photographers are lone wolf types it seems.

Also June marked a new beginning for me, photographing bathers at the Ocean's edge. See; Mammals at the Beach.  I have worked a great deal at events at the beach area and have now for years but concentrating solely on the shore and the bathers is new for me.

There is something I am chasing or digging deeply for in these images but it is extremely hard for me to clearly define in words.  This always seems the case until years later. My work initially seems to be formally motivated to me but as time goes by I can see more clearly into deeper things I am circling with my images. 

People in candid situations has been something I have concentrated on with increasing intensity since 2005. That it grew from my paid wedding photography begun in 1996 is quite funny to me. Because if you told me way back when I would shoot weddings and really enjoy it, I would have told you no way Jay.  Just goes to show I have no idea where I am going, but that is the mystery the process brings endless surprises. Discovery is what excites me it is like an exploration not knowing what I will find.

Of course the weddings I was previously aware of were all photographed in very staged ways.  When I stumbled in that wedding door couples were looking for candid images - story telling work.  How strange life is.

July 2013

I've been extremely busy & inspired (not always the case), remaking my website so a busy curator or the like will find it easy to see text info & recent work.  That will free up this blog and change its organization for the better. 
Lets see since nobody really knows who I am & I am not a spring chicken, I am now doing  tumblr500px, to try and get the work out there. Will it help, we will see. I am enjoying tumblr it is fun and a good adjunct to a bigger blog. For some reason a quick post here escapes me. 

Being a strongly right brained person I really find digging in a garden more satisfying than desk work. The desk work is exhausting and if anything comes from it, it seems to not show up often.  In a garden I see the dirt and I move the dirt, "wow that felt good".  Here I push 0s &1s around in a strange black box, pull a cyber trigger, pray it hits a target and even better the right targets. Strange.

Sometimes I get so sick of this endless desk stuff I almost run screaming, camera in hand to be with my muse. I do hope I have a handful of readers and this effort isn't blowing down an empty cyber hallway.
I got my critical mass entry in & am happy with the statement & work, wish me luck.  If you have worked hard and developed along the way give it a try.  It might just keep some old (or young) dog's photographs from dying in a family closet. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

LOOK3 (2013 observations-1)

"look3 2013, photo festival" (c) george elsasser

LOOK3 2013 was a better balance of art photography and journalistic photography than last years mix.

Of course there are many labels used in photography and most are misleading and limiting at best but that was my impression.

One is not better than another it just seemed a little more 50/50 this year. I enjoy most forms of photography and consider it all good grist for the mill. I will attend and did attend most insight interviews regardless of labels. In fact I really appreciate the more mixed bag LOOK3 had for us this year.

What it seems you won't find at the LOOK3 insight type events are any primarily commercial photographers. What I mean here is all of the photographers have the love of making images in common first and generally have to find money to support the work or the life of the photographer.  This is different than photographers who get paid to make images that have a direct bearing on things such as sales as apposed to say history, anthropology and so on.

I found the print shows overall more formally beautiful last year than this, maybe this was content related.

"look3 2013 photo festival" (c) george elsasser

For my dollar I would have loved seeing more Gregory Crewdson prints (only 2 color pieces shown) lots of wall space was devoted to the technical things behind the images. It isn't that was not interesting to me, but I would prefer to read about it in a book or another form and seen the wall space used for more images. Although in the smaller room at Second Street Gallery there were a number of recent b&w prints, from his latest body of work. While on Crewdson, I have been aware of his work for sometime and would of liked to have a book of his. It seems to me when he first came to some prominence I was heavily into studying various painters. So given this opportunity (despite my lean financial [on sabbatical] lifestyle) I purchased books yet again at a LOOK3 event.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Field Notes-1 (2013)

"lady walking on beach promenade" (c) 2013 george elsasser

 Updating a few things here:

March - trip to Morocco, some images here: morocco

April - photolucida : I unfortunately and very frustratingly had to cancel due to health issues:

June - May(late) - photographing locally

June - heading to LOOK3 hope to see you there:

photo-book notes:   Updated book design to show at LOOK3 currently on hold, leaving for LOOK3 
lets see if collective creative energy in one place kicks in so I will do my desk work upon return.  

Notes on photo books 4-8-13 (when the fire was hot) prior to health issues taking me off course.