Re-discovering the Master "The Seine : From Source to Sea"

I look at the Magnum web site from time to time to study the pictures, to learn from the masters, past and present. On the site there is an announcement for an upcoming exhibition by Magnum founder Henri Cartier Bresson. Rashly thinking I have seen all of Bressons work, but still wanting more, I clicked on the link. The pictures had been taken in the 1950s over a period of several years, with a subject that seems so mundane and common to hardly warrent pointing the Leica and exposing film. The photo essay traces the Seine River from its source to to the sea. An idea so simple but so rich in possibilities.

The Seine is well known in the photographs of Bresson and countless photographers since. The fascinating aspect of these river photographs is the number of shots that are new to me. Even so, several of the shots have a subtle familiarity too. This idea is a perfect subject for an essay. The river flows through history and through life itself. There are scenes on the river that are timeless and others that point to the future.

The journey begins with a picture that appears to be sort of a well in a field, the humble source of the Seine. Next is a perfectly composed picture of a house beside the river. The river is in a stone channel. A stone wall in the foreground leads to a classic "S" curve path between the river and the house. We all learned about the "S" curve in school and rejected it right away as corny and stilted. Here it is used to perfection. An otherwise static shot is brought to life by a small group of figures on the left side of the frame.

Two shots that have the subtle familiarity are scenes of picnics on the river bank. They look like they bracket the famous shot of the family group dining al fresco on the river bank. Both of these new shots have a strong diagonal composition with the river and the bank sharing the frame. One shot has a painterly composition with four figures and a Renault. The other has the foreground dominated by the struggle with a sun shade balanced by a figure in silhouette agenst the river in the background.

One frame that has seen widespread acclaim is an old couple sitting by a tree. This could be "French Gothic", with respect to Grant Wood, again this composition is brought high by the spontaneity of a running dog in the middle ground and the bridged river providing a pattern in the background.

There are two shots of bathers, one a vertical with the composition of bodies leading from the foreground through the middle to the river in the back. The stronger of the two is a shot of a wet, (from the river ?) flat surface with a wall of vertical stripes in the background. Filling this frame are a dozen bodies, the foreground elements are all horizontal while the three standing figures in the background echo the vertical stripes of the wall. The shapes and tones of bodies create an abstract photograph that is, at first, unlike HCB, but has his powerful signature that leaves no doubt of the photographer. I have commented on just a few of the shots in the essay. Please look at the entire effort.

These pictures, at first so simple, but with study rich and complex, again inspire and at the same time suggest "why bother", "what's the use". In the end the pictures of HCB, new and old provide a Master Class in the art and craft of photography.