12 July 2010

Art, Accident and Value

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932" is perhaps the most famous image by one of the most famous and influential photographers of all time. But why?

It was made at a time when small cameras with fast film were just coming into broad use and being employed to capture spontaneous and fleeting acts in pedestrian settings, starting a broad photographic trend that would extend to all genres of photography for 50 years. As one critic calls it, it is photography as "spontaneous witness." In this period, freezing people in mid-leap was very popular, technologically possible now for the first time. The famous French amateur Jacques-Henri Lartigue took very many of these leaping photos, getting everyone he knew to leap for him.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping

I was once watching a documentary on photography and a famous photographer detailed the careful composition of Cartier-Bresson's "Gare Saint-Lazare." It was fascinating. How every element was framed with great judgment and then captured with surpassing skill at the perfect moment in the man's leap. Peter Degrassi of MOMA says of it:

    I don't think anybody ever made a better one of those pictures than Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1932. The leaping man is caught just at the moment before his heel will touch the water. The water is so completely still, it acts like a mirror. And the way the picture is framed; you see his entire silhouette, which is clearer in reflection. Then there are these uncanny details, the sort of home made ladder that he's pushed off against has already made its ripples, and then, there are the bands that would go around a wooden barrel, in the shallow water nearby that anticipate the ripples that are going to happen once his heel hits the water. And then in the background, of all things, is a poster advertising some kind of dance event, with a dancer leaping in more or less the same pose that the man is leaping in.

So what is its value? This image is in copyright and, googling a bit, prints run between $8,000 and $18,000 each. If you are enjoying the totally unauthorized copy here, please buy a print and support the photographic arts. And who could argue that this exceptional expression of human creative genius is not worth the money. Right?

Cartier-Bresson himself said in an interview late in life that, in fact, when he took this through a hole in a wooden fence, he stuck his eye up to it, found the scene somewhat interesting, so then blindly stuck his camera into the hole and fired the shutter. One time. The man leaping was literally blind luck. Reread the above assessment with that in mind. With that datum, is this a work of artistic genius or a happy accident? Is it really worth $8,000 (starting) for a "hardcopy"? And how can you sell prints that are infinitely reproducible for that kind of money? How can you sell prints at all when one can find it everywhere on the internet for free? Or buy an art-quality reproduction in a book for pocket change?

But still these prints sell for high sums at high-rolling Christie's auctions seventy years after being created, one might say, mechanically and with great serendipity. For me this illustrates both how free things can be sold if you create a market (like fine art photography) and how genius and accident can be very difficult to distinguish. I think Cartier-Bresson was great. But millions of photographs have been blindly snapped on impulse, and I expect a surprising subset equal the artistic merit of this photo. What distinguishes this photo from those, in economic value, is much less creative genius than the simple fame of artist and photo.

But is it ever any different?

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