I didn’t take this picture, it was taken by a Frenchman named Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1933. It’s an image that has been somewhere in my mind ever since I first saw it.
When I was a boy I was in love with machines. Cameras in particular. Camera were perfect machinery: hi-grade leather and steel, with polished dials and knobs, lenses and viewfinders. Unlike locomotives and machine guns, which I also admired, I had some excuse for owning a camera- I could take pictures!
Well, I got the camera I wanted, and took pictures because that was what it was for, but they were just pictures; of my friends, of my family, of my car; ordinary snapshots, interesting only to the people in them. I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know what.
On my eighteenth birthday, my parents gave me a book of Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. On the card my mother wrote, “Dear Johnny–Maybe this will teach you to take photographs instead of just snapshots.” I felt a little insulted, but I looked at the book; and I saw what my mom was talking about.
People usually take pictures “of” something: a friend, a car, a soccer game; the “subject” of the picture. For Cartier-Bresson, the “subject” was everything in the frame, taken as a whole; it was not what was “in” the picture, but the picture itself. Every picture projected a strong feeling of its own, regardless of who or what was in it.
Take the picture here: It’s a famous photograph; original prints of it are worth upwards of $10,000 to art collectors. Why? It’s not a picture of any important event, or of any famous people.
In fact it’s not a picture of anything in particular. It’s just a couple of unknown boys in an alley. The boy on the left is blurred, the boy on the right in shadow, you can hardly see his face. The alley itself is the center of the picture, and it’s empty.
But somehow the light, the shadows, the receding space of the alley, the expression on the boy’s faces, all combine to produce an image of intense beauty and mystery- once you’ve seen it you can’t forget it.
So, thanks to my parents and Henri Cartier-Bresson, I realized what my camera was really for, and what it was I had to try to do with it.