Friday, February 1, 2008


Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz discovered the magic of the small hand-held camera sometime after World War One. Slightly younger than Kertesz and no less energetic about this new approach to making pictures was Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, who put aside his paints and brushes during the early 1930's and by the 1950's had changed how future generations of photojournalists viewed the world through their lenses.
Before Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson, print photographers shot their assignments on bulky large format view cameras. While these cameras produced a high quality negative for the print engravers to work from, these cumbersome machines often made it difficult for photographers to capture meaningful situations.
During the mid-nineteen twenties the 35mm Leica camera was introduced to the mass market. In Europe these smaller hanb-held machines were quickly adopted by press photographers who shot for the picture-oriented news magazines that were emerging during this same period. At the same time faster, more light sensitive films now allowed these photographers to begin shooting pictures in natural light situations that had once demanded artificial light sources to make photography possible. For the first time photography was able, on a regular basis, to capture candid segments of time from real situations rather than stilted looking posed photographs set-up by the photographer.
Both Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson worked during this period, independent of each other, and yet moving in the same visual direction. Both adopted the small cameras ability to be unobtrusive witness to the events they were tasked to record. Both men, however, took the new emerging technology a step further, re-defining the photographer's role as passive observer through their unique styles of composition through decisive framing and shooting. In the 1950's Cartier-Bresson gave this poetic visual point of view a name of it's own, "The Decisive Moment".
Both Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson created photographic images that celebrated a special kind of visual balance which they saw through their view-finders and chose to record on film. Both chose to capture their own worlds of visual order in the day-to-day chaos they were sent to report on. Both had taken the profession of photographer a giant step beyond the popular notion that people who made photographs for a living were merely "operators" of those devices who used the camera to capture what was in front of the lens without any regard to the organization of those elements framed in the view-finder. They were the first to question the cameras supposed objective view of reality; that the camera could not lie, and that any photograph was a truthful rendering of the thing in the photograph
Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson worked in Paris during the 1920's and 30's. Both men came to America, Kertesz prior to World War Two and Cartier-Bresson afterwards. Kertesz's career dipped into relative obscurity until the late 1960's while Cartier-Bresson enjoyed both artistic and journalistic success even after he put down his cameras and returned to his paints and canvas during the 1980's. A slightly bitter Kertesz finally received the recognition he deserved during the 1970's and 80's He had been invited to America based on his work in Paris during the 1930's. Unfortunately American publications were not ready for his kind of photographic vision and he spent 20 years trapped into doing commercial photography styled to the visions of others. Once Kertesz's work was criticized by a New York editor who told him his pictures said too much and needed to be simpler.
Indeed again.
Today's photojournalism consists mainly of followers of the W. Eugene Smith school of photography. Young newspaper photographers tend to follow in those giant footsteps. Smith was a committed journalist who believed in the absolute truth of the photographic image and the social problems it could expose and hopefully help to overcome. There is a smaller group of photographers at work today, mostly for magazines in America and newspapers and magazines in Europe, who question the basic truthfulness of the photographic process. Sean Callahan, former photo editor for The New York Times and American Photographer magazine, labeled the photos produced by this group the New Photojournalism. Callahan felt the work produced by these people had more in common with art photography than mainstream newspaper photography. Indeed, they had more in common with the work of Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson.
These New Photojournalists had much in common with a group of young writers author Tom Wolfe had dubbed the New Journalists. Grounded in the school of news reporting these writers also utilized certain literary techniques that gave their reports a totally different voice than traditional news writing.
For the New Photojournalists assuming the visual voice of a more literary kind of photography meant admitting that these photographs did not represent a completely unbiased point of view. Like the New Journalism the resulting photographs of the New Photojournalists often revealed the presence of the person making those photographs. These pictures were often more immediate and subjective than traditional photojournalism.
The work of Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson also reflected their presence through the intimacy of the moments recorded and the way in which they were recorded.The notion that a photograph was only the result of a chemical-mechnical process "operated" by a photo-technican had finally been laid to rest.

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