The Photo of the Century

Named ‘The Photo of the Century’ by Time magazine, Behind the Gare St Lazare combines both Cartier-Bresson’s desire for compositional perfection and his Surrealist interest in chance encounter that characterised his early career. As defined in his 1952 monograph on the subject, the ‘decisive moment’ allows an encounter with reality to be laid bare through the arrangement of a significant moment into compositional harmony so that “the fraction of a second when a person steps out” is immortalised. “To me,” Cartier-Bresson writes, “photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.” The climax of the image centres on the disappearing gap between the man’s foot and the puddle as he rushes out of the shot. In line with the chance encounters sought by André Breton and the Surrealists, the photograph is rendered remarkable by the layers of coincidental detail: in an advertisement on the wall in the background a leaping dancer echoes the protagonist’s jump whilst another poster for a performer called ‘Railowsky’ puns on the railings in the background and the railway station nearby. Behind the Gare St Lazare is one of the very few photographs that Cartier-Bresson cropped. He hated darkroom manipulation of his photographs by his editors and prevented it by printing with a black border. However, the gaps between the railings behind which he was shooting at the Gare St Lazare were not quite wide enough for his lens to fit through. This resulted in a large dark streak down one side of the photograph, forcing him to crop. In a 1974 interview, Cartier-Bresson described his search for the ‘decisive moment’ on the streets: “I’m a bag of nerves for the moment, and it wells up and up and it explodes, it’s a physical joy, dance, time and space all combined. Yes!! Yes! Yes! Like the ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Seeing is everything.”

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