book mini-review: Bresson: Europeans

This is the second in a series of short reviews of photography books. See the first, along with disclaimer, here.

Bresson: "Europeans"

* Title: Europeans
* Photographer: Henri Cartier-Bresson
* Wikipedia
* Text: Jean Clair, tr. Anthony Rudolf
* Publisher: Bulfinch
* Date: 1998
* Librarything
* Size: About the same as a MacBook
* Paid: $40.00 (Used)

This books collects images taken in various countries in Europe over a period of fifty years, grouped mainly by country. It’s the first volume of Bresson’s work that I’ve encountered — although obviously it’s not my first exposure to photographs by Bresson. The images are, of course, fantastic, and the reproduction quality is very good. (As is the construction of the book.)

There’s a great deal to the photography — far more than I can speak to with my more or less nonexistent grasp of art history. As someone who has handled a camera, however, it’s not hard to divine from his work how skilled, committed, and attentive Bresson must have been. I was, of course, aware of the concept of the “decisive moment,” but I think I had understood this merely as a matter of good timing. But it is not (or at least not just) a matter of capturing the right instant in a series of instants for a moving subject. It’s more a matter of a truly impeccable sense of composition (coordinating the relationships of landscape, architectural, human, and symbolic elements) being extended to include time as well as spatial positioning and relationships.

I’m not sure how much farther I want to go in describing the photography. If you’ve looked at Bresson’s photography, I’m sure you already know, and if you haven’t, there really isn’t a substitute for doing so. At some point, I would like to try to articulate more of what I’m seeing, particularly in comparison to Doisneau, and particularly regarding their senses of humor. It seems to me that there is a great deal of human comedy in Doisneau, whereas in Bresson, there is often a sort of sublime, absurd, and inhuman humor arising from the juxtaposition of elements which is only observable from the very specific place and time which are chosen; with Doisneau, there are moments which are familiar and which you feel you might share with Doisneau, or anyone else, if you happened to be in the vicinity. With Bresson, there is often the feeling that only by being Bresson and standing in his precise position could you have fully participated in the joke, and thus his images give more of a sense of looking through his particular eyes. This makes it sound like I think there is more to Bresson than to Doisneau; I don’t know that that’s really the case, however.

Bresson: Europeans"

The only complaint I have with the book is the text by Jean Clair. As mentioned, I do not have any background in art history, and I don’t suppose I’m qualified to judge the text. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that if I can keep up with Foucault and Nāgārjuna and at least fake it with a smile when confronted with Zizek, then the horror I feel at reading Clair’s prose can’t just be a question of it being over my head.

I mean, is there any degree of specialized knowledge which could possibly justify this passage:

What is it that speaks to us in a European landscape if not this invitation to walk across it, the thrill of crossing it, of penetrating it on foot, so unlike those landscapes of India or America which you can barely traverse with your eye and seem eternally elusive?

Or this,

Did [Proust] not also say genius…that its owner has the power to turn his personality into a mirror, ‘genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected’? An axiom which a follower of the Tao would not deny, for so strongly does the writer insist here, not on the brilliance of an intelligence, the grandeur of a culture or the worldly quality of a mind…but, to the contrary, on this somewhat passive power, on this ability of the body to reflect — unhindered by refraction — the image of life passing by.

If there is some context in which this effusive, almost masturbatory prose registers as good writing, I don’t want to be a part of it. And what relevance does this have to the photography of Bresson? I cannot see Bresson (at least not in the photography in this volume) as a symbolic “penetrator” of landscapes. (Although some photographers certainly are.)

And while I may know next to nothing about art, I feel comfortable guessing that Clair knows even less about Taoism. Surely someday we will reach the point past which westerners no longer feel comfortable pointing to any particular quality/idea/sense/brainfart that strikes their fancy and dub it “Tao” or “Zen”?

Also: “Unhindered by refraction”? Please.

This is why people hate the French.

Note: This is a translation, so some of the douchiness might be the fault of the translator. However, I doubt it; the majority of the douche factor here is coming from the content rather than the particular arrangement of phrases.

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