At The Beach (1) Shot in Normandy, France in 2006. What goes through Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work is a certain lightness of life. It has to do with the subjects he picks, the way he handles them, and also with the print expression that he seems to insists on. Decisive moments and precise compositions, sure, but the lightness of life is the thread that carries it all.
Eric’s Note: I am pleased to feature Knut Skjærven to the blog today, a street photographer with a fantastic eye which I see mirrors many of the aesthetics of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The interview is quite long, but very informative. Keep reading!
Knut: First of all, Eric, thank you for asking me for this interview. I am flattered that you suggest that there is a certain inspiration, and maybe even a likeness, in some of my pictures to those of Henri Cartier-Bresson. You said: “I love how your images convey a similar aesthetic to Henri Cartier-Bresson”.
That is a great, great compliment. I am not sure that I deserve it. I know I don’t. After all, it is not that long ago that I started taking photography seriously.
Sure, I have been taking pictures for many years, but it never occurred to me that I perhaps should spend more time with it. It was not till 2010 that I decided to start a proper photographic project. That project is still running. That brought about a change.
I call this change a move from picturetaking to photography. For me there is a huge difference. Not only related to the dedication involved, but also in the ways of doing things.
I have a clue as to what you mean by “a similar aesthetic”. The similarity is in part intentional. I was not sure that anyone would detect it. You did.
The first part of the similarity is based on the mere inspiration of certain of HCB’s themes and his ways of handling them. I do this as a silent honour to HCB. I have great pleasure in doing it. I also learn a lot.
The other similarity is more fundamental. It has, however, not much to do with HCB. It does not spring from him or his photographs. In a sense we share some of the same inspirations. He was there for real, I was there as a distant student and many years later. We refer to some of the same people. People like Luis Bunuel, like André Breton, like Jean Renoir. I know these guys. Not personally, but enough to know that we live in the same street. I also know Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who all operated in Paris at the same time as HCB. They sat important parts the scene for what happened in France, or for that matter, in Europe, at the time.
There are even additional sources of inspiration, as you will see later.
How did your interest in HCB start?
I am, as everybody else, fascinated. I am not that old with HCB, actually. I have know some of his work for many years, but only in very small portions and sporadically. He was never a household name with me. No photographers were.
It was not until 2010 that I said to myself that I needed to do something about that. I restarted my interest in photography and I needed a mentor. He was by far the best I could find. So I made him my mentor. I started reading all books by and about him, and I started studying his pictures. I don’t believe in doing things half way so I dug in. I still do.
It did not matter that he was French either (smiling). I have always been a fan of (some) French philosophers and (some) French filmmakers. Particularly that branch within philosophy that had to do with “die Sachen selbst” – non-biased reality. In filmmaking it was The New Wave that hit the cord. In philosophy it was phenomenology. This dual interest goes back to my student years when I had two main areas of study: film and philosophy.
In a way, I have come back home after years of doing other things. It is very enjoyable.
Could you be specific about what caught your interest in HCB?
Sure. I was impressed with 4 things.
First of all his photographs. They are, or many of them are, what I would call “resting images”. They transfer a kind of peacefulness when you look at them. There are not too much and not too little. They are complete even down to the tiniest detail.
Also: In his time HCB was a first mover within photography, and much of his celebrity status comes from that fact. That is definitely part of the charm.
Secondly, I became curious to know more about his resting images. Call this the picture context. I started looking deeper, and I started reading around them.
I have two books at my desk these weeks. One is “ Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Artless Art”, by Jean-Pierre Montier. The other one is “Zen and the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel. HCB got a copy of the last book in the sixties and it made a huge impression on him. It seemed to explain what he had been doing all along. Montier’s book is by far the most interesting book on HCB I have found. It is not an easy read, but it is very giving. Goes well with Peter Galassi’s The Modern Century, that I also find to be a good source. Galassi has written extensively about HCB. He is definitely a major capacity.
Third: What also impressed me was the consistency I found between life and art in HCB’s universe. Seems that the two were one. The more interviews I see or read, the more books I consult, the more photographs I study, the clearer it becomes to me that this unity exists. That is fascinating since many people nowadays operate their camera with the left hand, and the rest of their life with the right hand. Or opposite. That would never work for me, so I am inspired. The two have to be integrated.
Fourth, as I mentioned, I am fascinated by the incredible lightness of life that I see in HCB’s photographs. I find this lightness in both the subjects he picks, the way he picks them and also the way he renders them in prints. Even when photographing dark themes I strongly sense that lightness.
HCB is not in the doomsday league that some photographers and even famous academics, like Roland Barthes, seem to enjoy so much. I never understood why death should be more inspirational than life. Speaking metaphorically.
I don’t see the world negatively and I don’t think that HBC did either. Not in what I read from his pictures or from what he says in interviews. If you have a look at his famous shot from Dachau in 1946 that shot is full oflightness of life. Here it is. It is to me a humorous picture. There are many others similar to this.
People who really mean that photographs only carries messages of things having been have understood very little of what photography is and is all about. Photography was never about death. It was always about life.
Tell me more about the inspirations you have from photographs.
How do you honour a master? For me the answer was easy. You don’t copy but you let yourself be inspired. There are certain shots that I found very inspirational.
One of my favourites is the well-known shot from Brussels in 1932. Two Belgian gentlemen are standing by a canvas fence, sneaking into what is going on the other side. One is indifferent to, or unaware of, the presence of the photographer, the other is not. He turns towards the disturbance behind him. You can see his large, dark moustache. Here it is at Magnum Photos.
If luck comes my way I must make a shot like that, I said to myself. I few months later luck came my way and I took he image I call Honouring Henri (2). It is not much, but this was the shot a wanted to have.
I decided that I wanted to take a shot of people looking through the holes of a fence, and possibly with a person looking in the opposite direction. I shot this in Berlin in June 2010. I call it Honouring Henri (2).
There is another shot that is even more famous than the one from Brussels in 1932. You are familiar with it. I am sure. It is shot by the River Marne in France. It is, by many, recognised as HCB’s Masterpiece. Here at display at Magnum Photos.
I wanted to take a picture with that structure as inspiration. Let me show you two of my trials. The first is Dockside (3), the other one is Indian Summer (4).
Dockside (3). This is shot in Hamburg in the beginning of August 2011. I had HCB’s picture from River Marne as the inspiration. It was very deliberate. Foreground, background. The waterfront. People at ease.
What happens is this: Some images that you enjoy gets under your skin and your visual radar tends to halt and address motives based on a similar structure. If you set your mind to it, that is. It is your second nature operating.
Recently a friend well acquainted with HCB, Bernard Jolivalt, made me aware that the picture below, Indian Summer, reminded him about the famous River Marne shot. Interesting, I thought, that he should say that. Bernard wrote “The perspective of this picture reminds me “Sur les bords de la Marne” (on the bank of the river Marne) taken in 1938 by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The arrangement and postures are similar. In both picture, people stand, waiting. In HCB’s picture, a man pours a glass of wine. In yours, a girl drinks directly at the bottle. Nice coincidence.”
I did not take Indian Summer (4)with any conscious inspiration from HCB, but it turned out that is was there without my knowledge about it. Amazing how your mind works. The Dockside (3) image was, however, very deliberate.
Indian Summer (4). The shot is from Copenhagen and taken in October 2011. I had no idea that I was inspired by HCB when I took this. I was reminded by a friend that I was.
People and Spaces
Let me mention another line of direct inspiration.
HCB, in his best images seems, to be in total control. I can’t find a better word for it. It is impressive and almost unbelievable.
Within that total control there is the perfect placement of people as a striking factor. I am not talking about one or two people, which in comparison is easy, but about several people. Think about how difficult that is. The chances of blowing it are immense. It is not one decisive moment, but many. Each in their own little frame. We are talking about splits of seconds of control. An alert balance between photographer and photographed, that are very unique.
One of the most impressive images I have encountered in terms of control and people placement, is the picture HCB shot in Abruzzo Italy in 1951. You know that too, I am sure. Here it is at Magnum’s Website.
It is a dream picture. And it will it always stay a dream because no one today can take pictures like that. However, it is not forbidden to try. So I did.
Let me show you a couple of these trials hoping not to be laughed off the premises. For me this is part of the aesthetic similarity even if there is no surface similarity at all. The two picture are Piano Man (5) and Waiting for Wagner (6).
Piano Man (5) is shot in Copenhagen in the end of July 2011. One of the things I definitely have from HCB is the importance of distribution of spaces and people. If you have more than one or two people in I shot, it starts to get tricky. You don’t only want to have them in the right place, but you also want them performing the right acts. Here you have got 5 people to deal with.
Waiting for Wagner (6) is actually shot the same day as Piano Man (5). Very close to it, as well. Here you deal with 13 people that all have to be in the right place. On top of that, you want them to be engaged in a meaningful activity, as well. I find these things very challenging, and I often try to make something out of it.
HCB’s dedication to detail has been a clear inspiration for me. And it still is. Very much so.
Tell me about the difference between picturetaking and photography.
I’ll be happy to.
I had to find a way of describing the transitions you go through when wanting to take photography seriously. The best phrase I found was that this was a transition from simply being a picturetaker to that of (maybe) becoming a photographer. Picturetakers take pictures, obviously. Photographers literaly takes picture too, but they do it with a clear purpose and by knowing and using the alphabet and grammar of visual communication. HCB knew very well what he was doing. He was definitely a photographer.
Being a photographer takes training and knowledge. Being a picturetaker does not. That is the different. It is HUGE.
It is all too easy creating some sort of result when you use a camera. Anyone can buy one and start taking pictures. They don’t even have to leave the shop to start their new career as “artists”.
Knowing how to press the button, however, make them no photographers. Buying canvas and brushes and starting using them do not make you a painter either. You need to know how to use these tools. You have to study and you have to practice. You need to know something about colours, brushes and canvasses before you can start doing work as a painting artist. You need to know something about perspective and composition as well. That learning takes years.
Anyone can cover a canvas with paint using a brush as anyone can cover a film/card with light using a camera. That has, however, only little to do with painting or photography.
Yes, I had been taking pictures for years, but good enough results were far more randomly acquired than anything else. I could come home with 3000 images and decide that I did not want to look at any of them. It was a mess of styles, contents and time wasted. That actually happened. Now I can go back to these pictures knowing what I am looking for. I find some good ones, even. This change in attitude made a big difference.
Photography means “drawing with light”. I simply asked myself what does the pencils look like when you want to draw with light. I started coming up with answers and I tried deliberately and consistently to use the pencil that my experience had provided me with. And I looked for new experiences. I got myself a mentor as you know. All these things were part of the new deal.
Having a mentor does not mean that you copy what he has done. It means that you use his experiences and results but walk down you own path..
I found, along the way, for instance that is was much harder to do a simple picture than a complicated one. Simplicity is very important. I can’t recall any great photograph that was not very simple.
To do a simple picture is a very calculated process. You need to get rid of all the access information. Make sure that things fit together. That can be quite a task. This world belongs to the photographer.
Mind you, a simple picture can be complex, but never complicated. That difference is important to make.
Let me show you two images that I find complex but not complicated. They are structurally complex, but in terms of content they are very simple. The first one is Footwork (7). The second one is The Smoker (8).
Footwork (7), shot in Hamburg in August 2011. A very simple image of two ladies in a bookshop. However, it only works because the details are in order. Two pair of crossed legs, dark dress and white dress on light and dark backgrounds. Different modes and different styles.
The Smoker (8), shot in Berlin in May 2011. What holds this image together is the rhythm of the tiles and the windows. But what is interesting to me are the people and their occupations. The curious couple wanting to see what hides on the other side of the door. The woman outside in her tintin dress at the exact moment she is ashing her cigarette. And, of course, the fact that this is a black and white photograph that works better in colour. The orange colour match there is between the trash can, the plastic bag and the inside of the building. And again the bluish colour match there is between the female smokers jacked, the water pipe and the row of tiles at the top of the picture
Some will probably say that working along these lines sounds too calculated, difficult and even academic. And photography is supposed to be fun? Maybe so. But think about in another way. It takes about 5 years become a lawyer, even longer to become a medical doctor. Takes a lifetime to a become painter, a songwriter or a good harmonica player. Why is it that as soon as some people get a camera in their hand they instantly become brilliant photographers? You tell me.
The point is that they don’t. It is impossible.
The good thing is that photography, on top of everything else, also is a craft and like any other craft it can be learned. But it is not the craft that makes it alone. It, however have, to be there. You cannot teach anyone to be come a Picasso, a da Vinci, a Bob Dylan, a Wagner or a Mozart. Or for that matter a Henri Cartier-Bresson, but you can teach people how to hold a pencil or a brush, to wait for the right moment and to point the camera in the right direction.
The rest is up to the person in charge, I am afraid. It is up to the man behind the camera. Or the woman.
What does composition mean to you?
I am glad you asked that question. Composition means everything but in a very special way.
Composition is a sword with two edges. You need to know the fundamentals for the reason of using them, but also for the reason of not using them. If you know how to ride a bike you are given two options, not one. You can decide to ride it, or you can decide not to.
I do not go around measuring thinks. I still think that looking at or studying good photographs, and paintings for that matter, are the best education you can get. So I do that from time to time. And I pick up good compositions from just walking around in the cities or in the countryside. They are all over.
I take the time study the best images I can get hold of. Paintings or photographs. I look at them over and over again. I hope I pick up things. I try to figure them out. However, I never think much about it when I am out shooting afterwards. It is more like an automatic scanning of scenery that goes on in the background. You are arrested by reality. Images come to you. Not the other way around.
I try to get a certain balance in my photographs. Or, if I decide to, I try to get a certain un-balance in the shots. I have these two options. I do not try to shoot in blindness, which by the way was my speciality not that long ago.
A very important side track was this: I discovered that an eye on composition in pictures also trains you in an area that I had not expected. You get to become a better planner. It is like the knowledge of foreground and background, the knowledge of circles and squares makes it clear that this is not only about images, but about life in general. That was new to me.
I learned that you can only have one focal point at the time. That goes for life as well. You can have many things in motion at the same time still, but you need to set focus on the one you are working on right this minute or nothing will materialize with quality. Just like in photography. Simple is solid.
I find all this to be a to be a questions of training. All of us can do it. Not to the refinement of HCB, but we all can improve along the way. In our own tiny scales.
The more tools you have in your rucksack the better. The point that once it is there you can forget all about it. That is the way is works. It works silently for you if you tell it to. Very easy, in fact.
Photography is hard work in the beginning. Later it gets much easier. HBC collected images from 20 years for his book Decisive Moments that was published in 1952. And another 5 years for his The Europeans from 1955.
That’s is how hard/easy photography is. Think about that for a while. I did.
Let me show you two images that work for me in terms of composition. I find them both to be complex since there are many elements in both. I cannot tell you exactly why they work, and that does not really bother me either. It is like lateral thinking setting in. You rely on the automatic scanner. I use that a lot.
The images are Englishman in New York (9) and Rainy Day (10).
Englishman in New York (9). I did not set the title on this image. Someone else did, and I am thankful because it fits perfectly. I am content with the composition of this image, because to me it is ”a resting image”. Not too little and not too much. I am in no positions to analyse an image of this complexity, but I would like to know why I find this pleasing. If there is a why? Is does not really matter, does it.
Rainy Day (10). You can install life into a shot by taking it at the right moment. All these people are actually on the move since it was pouring down. You can have additional movement in a shot by separating people, groups of people, objects, space and directions. The basic point here is that you need to foresee what will happen. Not that you have much time to do it in. Berlin, June 2011. All of this has to do with composition and timing.
You talk about the visual alphabet and a visual language. What you mean?
First of all it is important to stress that this visual alphabet and the visual language only have little to do with the way the verbal language has been built up. The visual language is much looser than that. And is it direct. You don’t have to pass though a set of symbols e.g. words. What you see if what you get.
I use the expression visual alphabet about the individual elements that you can work with. I use the expression visual language for the way these elements can be combined.
When I use these expressions it is simply to point out that the visual language, after all, have some basic building blocks and structures that photographers can use.
These building blocks emerge from experience with visual communication and from research within the area. It is definitely not something I have invented. What I did invent, however, is the combinations of sources and the adaption to photography. Having them all work together.
I have much about this on barebones communication. I have recently started adapting this information to street photography.
How do I use this language? Well, mostly I don’t. Not in a conscious way. As preparation for this interview I started looking at a serious of images I just got from the UK. I looked to see I could find some common denominators that I maybe used unconsciously, since I found that many of my photographs have similar structures. I don’t know if that is good or bad.
I got 22 small prints from the UK. Small enough so I could lay them side by side on the dining table. What is this guy trying to do, I asked? And how is he doing it? Has he got a style that is recognisable? I looked even closer. It is a good exercise to view your own images as if they were taken by somebody else. It gives you a distance to them.
So that here are the first humble results from that recent self investigation J.
Open and Closed Images
The first thing I found was that there seemed to be two types of images: open images and closed images.
On closer inspection I found, that what seemingly were the open images in fact were the closed ones, and the closes images were the open ones. The best way to explain this is by showing you two pictures: The Mirror (11)and The Reception (12).
The Mirror (11). At first glance this seems to be a very open image. And in a certain sense is it. The whitish space may suggest openness, but in fact this is a closed image. It is self-contained. You don’t ask for more information that you have already got in the picture. I call this, then, a closed image.
The Reception (12). At first glance this is a very closed image. There is no room for more. On second glance this image begs for questions to be asked. Why is his young lady passing? What is she doing there? What is she looking at? I call this an open image.
One, Two and Even More Dimensions
I also found other interesting things: Some of the photographs had a one-dimensional structure, but by far most of them had at least a two-dimensional structure. Of course I knew some of this beforehand, but I never sat words on it like this.
In the one-dimensional picture the message is fairly simple. Let me show you two examples of what I would call one-dimensional photography. This is , by the way, not negative meant but only a label used to find out what is often going on in photographs.
The two images are Shipmates (13) and K-damm Couple (14).
Shipmates (13) is shot in Copenhagen this summer (2011). This is an example of what I call an one-dimensional image. The content is clear: A group of men/officers are standing at the end of a ship ladder. That is basically the message. Visually the message is also very simple.
Be aware that one-dimensional pictures do not need to simple in terms of structures. Shipmates (13) is simple, but K-damm Couple (14) is not.
K-damm Couple (14). One of my own favourites. Shot in Berlin in November 2010. I was out looking for a late night fast dinner, and I passed these guys in this pose on a bench about 200 meter from my hotel. I can’t neglect this, I thought, and so I asked for permission to take a couple of pictures. Same pose, but now they were aware on me. This is a one-dimensional image, but compared to Shipmates (13) above the composition is much more complex.
That much for one-dimensional photography. Let’s look at some two-dimensional images from the dinner table selection.
If the one-dimensional images thrives on the exchange of meaning from image to spectator, then multi-dimensional images add a dimension to that: there is a exchange of meaning already inherent in the image.
Let me even here show you some examples: The Stranger (15) and The Flying Dutchman (17).
The Stranger (15) is shot in May 2011. Charlottenburg, Germany. This is a good example of what I call a two- dimensional image. The lines of communication are not only from picture to viewer. There is another point of interest as well. What is happening, or is not happening, between the two people in this shot? Are they in some way connected? In what way? Questions posed, but not answered. As a photographer you can force such questions into play
The Flying Dutchman (16) shot at the Jewish Memorial in Berlin. Yes, another example of a two dimensional picture. It has two lines of communication. First one from the image to the viewer, second one from the group of three in the foreground, and the flying Dutchman in the background.
Add to that that many pictures are multi-layers. When you talk about dimensions, as I do it here, you talk about relatively distinctive exchange point of meaning between the image and the spectator. Or within the images.
When you talk about layers you add dimensions that to a larger extent is based on the culture you bring with you. There are always such cultures, and a layered message may be more or less distinct. One (male) viewer stated for instance that he read sexual connotations in The Stranger (15). Others may read political, symbolic, or other not necessarily intended messages into almost every picture.
Her are two photographs with potential layered messages. The first is Blue Note (17). The other one is The Stool Mover (18).
Blue Note (17) is shot in Berlin in October 2011. There is an internal reference in this image consisting mainly in the non-spoken dialogue between the posh couple in the foreground, and mother and child sitting begging in the background. The simple juxtaposition of the two groups establishes this shot at least with a two dimensional structure. Add to that the social comment, or non-comment, that can be induced from the picture. You have wealth and poverty expressed here. The young couple, that long gone have gone stale in their headlessness, turns their back on the realities unfolding quite close to them. They have chosen to turn their backs on it, only to take the occasional glimpse on the social surrounding thought the car mirror up left. This could be said to be a layered cultural message. Is this a comment on the present crisis in Europe? Hardy, but for some it might be.
Just a quick word on another optionally layered image. The Stool Mover (18) is from May 2011. Shot in Berlin. This is potentially a layered image, in that it ALSO indicates a reality of things. The white, black dressed and very exclusive women standing comfortly inside the house, are watching when the differently dressed man is carrying out his chores. The women a placed high, the man placed low as to indicate their social status. He is their servant.
Clearly there are much more to be said about the language of images. My point here is only if you have the ambition to move from picturetaker to photographer there are tools that could help you along that way. HCB new all of this. That’s is why his universe is so long lasting and inspiring.
It must be stressed that such tools are not here to substitute creativity as a more instinctive and spontaneous process when taking pictures. They are only there to assist such creativity. Using the elements of a visual language will become second nature and act as silent servants for the spontaneous eye. The sword has got two edges. Not one.
Did HCB taught you all this?
Hehe, no he did not, but he inspired some of it. And that is what photography is all about. Being inspired. Using HCB as a mentor is not such a bad idea. You should try it. Or try someone else. The point is that there is not that many out there that can be used for this. To me HCB is definitely the best. In fact, I know of no one else.
What can you say what you think photography is in one sentence?
I could certainly try.
Photography is the engaged process and results of consciously reinventing the world by the help of a camera in a way that is arresting, interesting, attractive – and sometimes even amusing.
But it got to be good. The best of your ability. You must make an effort. I stick to the light side as well :-).
That was one sentence plus. And if you now ask me whatever happened to the decisive moment, I have to tell you that it’s right in there. HCB would have known.
Thank you Eric.
About Knut Skjærven
He started, he says, to take photography seriously in 2010 when he decided not only to burn pixels, but doing a project that lasted more than between coffees. He has stayed with it ever since.
From then on things went quickly. Knut runs and/or has initiated the following sites and projects: barebones communication (2007), Berlin Black and White (2010), Phenomenology and Photography (2010), Facebook Group On Every Street (2011), Facebook Group On Every Second Street (2011) and Facebook Group The Europeans (2011).
He also does more academic writing like this article for Studia Universitatis (Romania) that was published in 2011 (see page 137). He holds two university degrees in communications, film and philosophy.
Knut has written two books and lots of articles. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. But he is Norwegian, he insists. He is a blogger, researcher and a photographer.
Feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the interview and what you think about Knut’s thoughts and approach in street photography!