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Hyéres, France 1932 is a black and white photograph of a street scene in the southern French town of Hyères taken by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. A black railing runs across the image horizontally, beginning at the left side of the composition and gradually twisting around a steep stone staircase in the centre of the scene. The photograph is taken from a high vantage point, looking down towards the street, and the stairway in the middle moves from the foreground through to the background of the image as it leads down to the road below. This road curves in a wide arc across the top portion of the photograph and a black-clad male figure can be seen riding a bicycle along it in the upper left corner of the scene.
Cartier-Bresson took this photograph in 1932 while on holiday in Hyères in the French Côte d’Azure region. During a walk around the town, Cartier-Bresson positioned himself at the top of the staircase with his equipment and waited for activity to take place that he could capture. Hyéres, France can be considered in relation to the notion of the ‘fixed-explosive’, a concept that the curator Clément Chéroux describes as
the state of something simultaneously in motion and at rest … Cartier-Bresson loved the movement that set lines in motion and energised compositions. He often introduced mobile subjects into his compositions … By pressing the shutter release on his Leica, he stopped the movement, but at the same time he was able to produce images that, through their framing, composition and rhythm, still preserved the dynamism of the action. According to the principle of dialectic synthesis, they are therefore at one and the same time in motion and at rest: fixed-explosive.
(Chéroux 2014, p.86.)
This can be seen in Hyéres, France in the combination of architectural elements that suggest movement through their spirals and curves, and the way in which they lead down to the moving figure on the bicycle.
In 1952 Cartier-Bresson published a selection of his photographs with an accompanying essay detailing his photographic approach in the book The Decisive Moment. In the text Cartier-Bresson explained that for him ‘photography is the simultaneous recognition, in the 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’ (Cartier-Bresson 1952, p.16). This ‘decisive moment’, Cartier-Bresson argued, is unique to photography, because while a sculptor or painter can adjust his or her work repeatedly, the photographer is not afforded such an opportunity. The skill of the photographer therefore lies in the ability to capture the decisive moment, thereby creating a ‘picture-story’:
Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigour and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself … The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions.
(Cartier-Bresson 1952, p.5.)
In Hyères, France Cartier-Bresson has isolated the moment at which the fast-moving cyclist is framed by the surrounding architecture, such that his dynamism is emphasised by the stationary yet curving progression of the stairway, implicating him in a possible narrative or ‘picture-story’.
Hyères, France was taken early in Cartier-Bresson’s photographic career, the year after he had begun to practice photography professionally, as both an artist and a journalist, following his return from a trip to Africa in 1931. During this time he began to photograph events and street scenes in which he distilled situations into a series of significant moments. For instance, in Waiting in Trafalgar Square for the Coronation Parade of King George VI 1937 (Tate P13402), an older woman sits on the shoulders of two men, one of whom wears military decorations. Crowds are visible in the background, yet the image focuses on these three figures and their facial expressions, conveying their boredom and anticipation as they wait for the parade to commence.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, Paris and New York 1952.
Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2010, reproduced p.89.
Clément Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now, London and New York 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.