In the April 19, 2010, issue of the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl has a review of the Cartier-Bresson retrospective. In the review he quotes Robert Frank, (the photographer known for his book The Americans) commenting on Cartier-Bresson, “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.”
This morning I have pondered this quote and looked at many images by Frank and Cartier-Bresson with the intent of pairing their images to show Cartier-Bresson's strong composition and lack of compassion and Frank's indifference to composition and his empathy with his subjects' emotions. The reality of their work is that it is complicated.
In comparing Cartier-Bresson's photo of Georgians on a picnic at a monastery with Frank's image of an African-American funeral I am struck by how strong the composition and arrangements of forms is in both images. Yes the placement of every element: the monastery in the distance, the rake of the car fender, the placing of each of the people, even the picnic blanket all fall into place, as if sketched by a painter instead of aligned by a photographer.
The funeral photo has its own pictorial structure with three figures receding in space. On the question of empathy, the picnickers appear a bit nervous and dwarfed by the landscape. While the foreground mourner is lost in his thoughts and to me almost seems to be playing a harmonica. Trying to determine who the most compassionate photographer presents one of the dilemmas of photography--how accurately does our reading of a photograph reflect the reality of the emotion state of the people in it.
Another pair of Frank and Cartier-Bresson images of people lying in parks shows Cartier-Bresson's focus on people arranged in the picture plane and Frank's direct confrontation of a man lying shoeless on the ground. As to which photo displays its subjects' emotions more strongly, I'm not really sure.
And consider this photograph of a shoeless New Yorker. Was it shot by Frank or Cartier-Bresson?