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Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932

FRANK HORVAT talks about Henri Cartier-Bresson:

My first experience with Henri Cartier-Bresson is something I probably have in common with a few hundred other photographers: he looked at my prints upside down, without paying attention to subject matter, just making remarks such as: "see, here you have a circle, here a triangle: they don't fit".

I didn't really understand what he meant, and I must admit that even now, fifty years later, I don't look at photographs that way. Still, in my life as a photographer, this meeting was the turning point: because it conveyed to me the feeling that photography was a much higher calling than I had previously imagined.

So I adopted his rules (or at least some and for some time): I used a Leica with a 50 mm lens, never empoyed artificial light, never interfered with what I photographed, never reframed my original shots. Marc Riboud once told me that for the closer disciples the rules were even stricter: about how to wrap black scotchtape around the Leica, in order to make it less conspicuous, how to organize one's camera bag, etc.

Some of us became good and even famous photographers – but not many of our photos could be mistaken for his. Because his secret lies elswhere. Only now – being much older myself than he was when we first met – I begin to understand.

It's like Zen Buddhism – in which he believes – or Japanese archery, which he often mentions. Or like T.S.Eliot's "teach me to care and not to care". Conscious attention to geometry helps to an unconscious approach of subject matter – i.e. to an approach free of intentions, like the journalistic intention of "telling a story".

I remember my disappointment, in the early Fifties, when Life published a whole issue of his photographs from the Soviet Union – the first ever taken by a Western photographer. What they showed was neither the Soviet paradise, nor the Soviet hell: just ordinary people, like us, working, dancing, sitting in the sun. Now I understand that this was a much deeper statement than anti-Communist (or Communist) propaganda would have been.

This is why, in my opinion, HCB is the greatest photographer of the 20th century – and also the most misunderstood (which is possibly an attribute of greatness).
The photograph "Derrière Saint-Lazare", about which I have been asked to comment, is a good example of this kind of misunderstanding: many people get ecstatic about the coincidence between the leap of the man and the dancer on the poster. To me this is not the main point: what makes this a great photo is of course the "geometry", but even more the "subject matter", which is a complex relation between several stories and feelings, that cannot be expressed by words: if it could – what would be the point of photography?

Frank Horvat, Cotignac, July

To see Frank Horvat's work click here



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