Exercise 5.3

St Lazare desk-4804

Look again at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in Part Three. (If you can get to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London you can see an original print on permanent display in the Photography Gallery.) Is there a single element in the image that you could say is the pivotal ‘point’ to which the eye returns again and again? What information does this ‘point’ contain?

Include a short response to Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in your learning log. You can be as imaginative as you like. In order to contextualise your discussion you might want to include one or two of your own shots, and you may wish to refer to Rinko Kawauchi’s photograph mentioned above or the Theatres series by Hiroshi Sugimoto discussed in Part Three. Write about 150–300 words.

Behind the Gare Saint Lazare is a genuinely iconic image that in its time presented the possibilities of photography to capture and instant in time. Cartier Bresson, using a 35mm camera with all the freedom it offered when compared to previous generations of larger and slower cameras made this image through a gap in a builders hoarding. As he recalls in the interview in O’Byrnes (2001) Just plain love documentary :

I slipped the camera through [the railings] but I couldn’t see, that’s why it’s a bit blurry… I couldn’t see a thing through the viewer.’

‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’

No.’ ‘That was lucky.’

It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance, that’s all. If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.’

The image contains significant amounts of information. The scene, believed to be a construction site behind the St. Lazare railway station records a moment in time, a decisive moment. The image attests to the point being made by Flusser, noted in the EYV course materials that a picture isn’t read in a linear serial manner, it is a continuous experience with the eye being drawn to many elements simultaneously. There is much going on in the image and over time it has been interpreted and reinterpreted by many commentators.

St Lazare-4805

For me the pivotal point of the image for me is the silhouette of the jumping man and his reflection in the puddle below. It is the interplay, indeed the distance between his front foot and its reflection. Although the images contains much more information, it is this part o the sen that i always return to. it creates a sense of motions supported by the ripples down the ladder where the man has just run. the still image is full of a sense of movement, countered by the stillness of the puddle. Much of the information in the image is contained in the reflections, indeed ¾ of the scene is a reflection in a large puddle. The pivotal point hinges on  timing, the moment the shutter was released, because an instant after the image was made the mans front foot will have hit the water and much of the scene will have dissappeared in the outward ripples created as he splashes into the puddle. In that moment after the shot was recorded, the whole image as we see was gone forever! I learned much about reflections in pools and the fluid dynamics of puddles in executing assignment 4!

There are other factors of note, the replicated image of the man and his reflection in the poster on the wall, next to “Railowsky” appears to mirror the man and his reflection as he jumps the puddle. Also the single figure, another silhouette next to the fence on the far side of the scene mirrors Cartier Bresson himself, the observer of the scene, all be it from the other side of the image.

I am challenged a little by the reference to both Kawauchi and Sugimoto in the exercise brief, and I am troubled that the link isn’t obvious to me. I have a sense that at this point in the final stage of the course I should know whey they are referenced. I looked a Sugimoto’s work in detail in an earlier part of the course and understand his stretching of time, how he uses the full illumination of a feature film to make an image. Sugimoto capture an entire story in the light of his Theatres image and although the detail of the story can’t be unpicked, the viewer knows it is there. Sugimoto has also suggested that happy movies produce brighter images than horror films that tend to be darker. Perhaps the link is that in “Behind the Gare St. Lazare’, there is in one scene a multitude of stories waiting to be read, shared and interpreted. The Internal Context of the image is almost overloaded, the pictorial element compete for interpretation, we have Cartier Bresson’s thought about how the image was made that provide further information in the the form of the Original Context and we also have the fact that a copy of the image hangs in the V&A providing some External Context that all add to the interpretation of this paradigm setting image of the decisive moment.


O’Byrne, R. (2001) Henri ‘L’amour de court’ (‘Just plain love’)


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