The photography world stood on the brink of immense change as a single leap over a puddle would soon shift the world of photography forever.
In this photo analysis, I’ll analyze “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” by Henri Cartier Bresson, one of his most famous works and the image often cited when discussing the compositional technique of the Decisive Moment.
In order to understand what made this image a “good photo,” we’ll be covering:
- the historical background and intent of the image
- the composition techniques used
- the color, the camera and lens used
- exposure settings
- marketing and impact
To watch my video analysis of this photo, you can watch it here:
Table of Contents
Historical Background and Intent
Let’s do a quick overview and retrace the steps of Henri Cartier Bresson (1903-2004).
Henri grew up in a wealthy family in Chanteloup, France, and was introduced to the arts at an early age.
He was initially drawn to painting, but his true passion was sparked when he discovered photography.
With a camera, Henri found a tool he could use to interact with the world.
In his early years, he traveled extensively, from Europe to Africa, and absorbed varied cultures while witnessing both the mundane and the historic.
These experiences helped to shape his outlook on life and hone his philosophy: photography isn’t just about images, it’s about capturing the essence of existence.
This philosophy matured into what he later termed “The Decisive Moment.”
Inspired by the 17th-century Cardinal de Retz’s quote, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment,” Henri internalized this notion, making it the cornerstone of his work.
It wasn’t just about pushing the shutter at the right moment.
It was about intuition, anticipation, and connection with the subject and environment.
Fast forward to Paris, 1930.
Behind the Saint-Lazare train station, an ordinary scene was about to unfold.
An unsuspecting man, perhaps in a rush, decided to leap over a puddle.
Henri, always observant, saw this not just as a jump, but as a symphony of shapes, shadows, and reflections.
He captured it, turning a mundane act into a timeless masterpiece.
It wasn’t just a photo; it was a testament to his philosophy.
The leaping man, frozen in time, epitomized the essence of “The Decisive Moment.”
A split second earlier or later, and the magic would have been lost.
Now let’s take a look at the composition used in this famous photo:
Geometry and Balance
The composition of this image beautifully balances organic movement with structured geometry.
The rigid, linear patterns of the railings juxtapose brilliantly against the fluid and dynamic silhouette of the jumping man, creating a delightful visual tension.
This juxtaposition, in essence, mirrors life – structured yet unpredictable.
One of the standout features is the use of leading lines.
The railings, both physical and shadowed, act as arrows, pointing directly at the main subject.
Even the subtle lines in the water and the contours of the puddle help in directing the viewer’s gaze towards the man.
Reflection and Duality
The reflection is not just a mirror image; it’s a narrative device.
It grounds the image and provides depth, but more importantly, it encapsulates the ephemeral nature of moments.
Here one second, gone the next, but always leaving a trace behind.
The symmetry provided by the reflection creates a harmonious balance, almost like a yin-yang, where the reality and its reflection coexist.
Framing and Negative Space
The surrounding environment, though seemingly passive, plays an active role in framing the subject.
The ads on the wall, the wet ground, and the clear sky above.
Each contribute to the scene without overwhelming the main subject.
The generous negative space around the leaping man accentuates his movement, making the action feel both isolated and significant.
Rule of Thirds
Cartier-Bresson’s adherence to the ‘rule of thirds‘ in this image is evident.
The horizon line (where the ground meets the railings and buildings) is roughly a third from the bottom of the frame.
The jumping man, the primary subject, aligns perfectly at the intersection of the grid, making him the undeniable focal point.
Depth and Layers
Lastly, the image is layered, providing a sense of depth.
The foreground with the puddle, the mid-ground with the jumping man and railings, and the background with the buildings and advertisements – all come together to create a three-dimensional feel in a two-dimensional medium.
Let’s take a look at the colors, or in this case, lack of color used in the photo.
The choice of black and white for the photo was not by choice but by technological limitations in the 1930s.
Although there is no color, the monochromatic introduces a sort of timeless quality.
By stripping away all colors, the viewer can focus solely on what’s going on in the image and not be distracted by the hues in the scene.
Contrast and Tonal Range
“Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” boasts a rich tonal range — ranging from the deep blacks in the railing and the silhouette of the jumping man, to the stark whites from the reflected sky in the puddle.
This use of high contrast accentuates the drama in the scene, making the decisive moment even more palpable.
Textures and Details
Since there is no color in the image, the texture becomes more pronounced as well.
The water’s surface, the worn-out posters on the walls, and the grainy quality of the wet ground, all allow the viewer to almost feel the environment when viewing the image.
Emotion and Atmosphere
The grayscale palette of black and white also evokes a sense of nostalgia, while the contrasting tones reflect the juxtaposition of the mundane routine against the unexpected, fleeting moments.
The image presents a world where simplicity meets depth.
Mood and Focus
The absence of color also allows the story to shine.
With no colors to lead or mislead the viewer’s eye, the emphasis remains on the subject, the story, and the composition.
Finally, the monochromatic scheme grants the image a universal appeal.
Without the cultural or temporal contexts that colors might provide, the image becomes relatable across different times and cultures.
It speaks not of a specific place or time but of a universally understood human experience.
Camera and Lens
Henri Cartier Bresson was known for using a Leica rangefinder with a 50mm lens.
This allowed him for a quick and unobtrusive shooting style, which is essential for street photography.
Henri also preferred the 50mm lens because it offers a field of view close the human eye, ensuring he captured images that felt natural and immersive to the viewer.
Leica rangefinders, particularly during Cartier-Bresson’s time, were a revolutionary piece of equipment in the world of photography.
These cameras were compact, reliable, and offered unparalleled image quality.
Their design was more discreet than the large and conspicuous cameras of the era, making them the preferred choice for many street photographers.
One of the main reasons Cartier-Bresson favored the Leica rangefinder was its stealthy nature.
Its quiet shutter allowed him to capture moments without drawing attention to himself, letting life unfold naturally before his lens.
This silent operation was crucial for someone who believed in capturing authentic, unstaged moments.
The choice of a 50mm lens was not accidental.
Often referred to as the “normal lens,” the 50mm closely mimics the field of view and perspective of the human eye.
Photos taken with this lens have a particular authenticity to them; they reproduce scenes in a way that feels genuine and undistorted.
The 50mm lens, especially on the Leica rangefinder, is renowned for its sharpness and depth.
It has a shallow depth of field when shot wide open, allowing photographers to isolate subjects from the background.
However, when stopped down, the lens can render everything in a scene sharp, from foreground to background, which is evident in many of Cartier-Bresson’s street scenes.
Another significant advantage of the 50mm lens is its versatility.
It’s equally adept at capturing portraits, landscapes, and everything in between.
This all-around capability made it an excellent tool for Cartier-Bresson, who often found himself transitioning between various scenes and subjects.
Cartier-Bresson once said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
He was an advocate for mastering one’s tools and not being seduced by the latest equipment.
His loyalty to the Leica and the 50mm lens wasn’t just about brand preference; it was about knowing his tools inside out.
By sticking to a single camera-lens combo, he was able to focus on the scene, the moment, and the composition, rather than fumbling with gear.
Let’s take at the exposure settings used in the photograph.
Exposure is controlled by aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
“Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” showcases a significant portion of the scene in sharp focus, from the foreground elements like the puddle and the jumping man, to the mid-ground railings, and even the background buildings.
This clarity across various planes suggests that Cartier-Bresson likely used a smaller aperture setting.
Considering that the jumping man is frozen in mid-air with no noticeable blur, Cartier-Bresson must have chosen a relatively fast shutter speed.
Fast shutter speeds are critical for freezing rapid motion and are especially vital in candid street photography, where fleeting moments are the primary subjects.
During Cartier-Bresson’s era, digital ISO settings weren’t a thing, but film speed, which serves a similar purpose, was.
Based on the grain and clarity of the photograph, it can be assumed he used a film with moderate ISO.
Higher ISO films were grainier but more sensitive to light, while lower ISO films offered cleaner images but required more light.
For a photograph to be correctly exposed, the photographer needs to balance aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Given that Cartier-Bresson was shooting in what seems to be natural light, and to achieve the depth of field and motion freeze, he would have had to strike a delicate balance between these three settings.
Intuition Over Instruction
Cartier-Bresson was known for his intuitive approach to photography.
While the technical aspects were essential, he often relied on his instinct and experience rather than sticking to rigid settings.
This intuition, combined with a deep understanding of his equipment and environment, allowed him to capture moments with precision.
This image relies on natural light and the shadows suggest that the image was taken during midday when the sun was high in the sky.
Let’s take a closer look at the lighting used in this photo.
Natural light is a gift to photographers, offering a range of moods and tones based on the time of day and weather conditions.
Cartier-Bresson, being a maestro of street photography, leveraged this gift to its fullest, letting the environment dictate the mood of his shots.
In “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare,” the choice to use the available natural light adds an authentic, unmediated quality to the image, free from the artifice of artificial lighting setups.
Typically, photographers are wary of the midday sun due to its harshness and the strong shadows it can cast.
However, in this image, Cartier-Bresson turned these potential drawbacks into assets.
The sharp shadows not only create compelling geometric shapes but also add depth and dimension to the scene.
They emphasize the airborne motion of the man, as his shadow seems to stretch out, reaching for the ground.
The high sun results in stark contrasts between the lit areas and the shadows.
This contrast accentuates the texture throughout the image as well.
The sun’s position played a pivotal role in creating the vivid reflection seen in the puddle.
Without the overhead light source, the reflection might have been diffused or less defined.
This mirror image not only doubles the visual interest of the photo but also introduces an element of symmetry, further solidifying the image’s composition.
Even though the sun’s position suggests midday, the lighting evokes a somewhat moody ambiance.
The brightness doesn’t overpower; instead, it’s the interplay of light and shadow that dominates, creating a scene that feels both dynamic and contemplative.
Lighting, especially in outdoor settings, is ever-changing.
Cartier-Bresson’s ability to anticipate and capture “The Decisive Moment” wasn’t just about the subject’s action but also about recognizing when the light would work in his favor.
Throughout his career, Henri Cartier Bresson believed that a photograph should be a direct representation of the scene.
Darkroom as a Tool, Not a Crutch
He believed in the sanctity of the decisive moment and that the authenticity of it should be captured instantly while remaining intact.
He believed in capturing scenes as they were rather than altering them post-facto.
While he refrained from heavy manipulation, this does not mean that he was a stranger to the darkroom.
Contrast and Tonal Adjustments
Like many photographers during his time, he was familiar with and might have used darkroom techniques to enhance his images such as dodging (lightening specific parts of the image) and burning (darkening them).
The strong contrast and clear tonal ranges in the image might suggest that Cartier Bresson might have made slight adjustments to the image’s contrast.
In terms of cropping, while he was known to occasionally crop his images, he often spoke against it.
Cartier Bresson believed that a composition should be determined when the photograph was taken, not after.
If any cropping was done, it was very minimal and only for the sake of refining the frame rather than altering the core composition.
In fact, when looking at the negative of this photo, Cartier Bresson did in fact crop it and it was one of the few image that he cropped.
The graininess noticed in his images was not a post-production addition but a characteristic of the film he used.
Rather than seeing grain as a defect, he embraced it as a textural element, adding depth and a tactile quality to the photograph.
All-in-all, Cartier-Bresson’s aversion to excessive manipulation was rooted in his commitment to truth in photography.
As a photojournalist and a street photographer, he believed that the image should be a faithful representation of reality, devoid of artifice.
He took this approach when photographing “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare.”
Marketing and Impact
Lastly, let’s take a look at the marketing and impact of the photo:
The Ripple Effect
Cartier-Bresson’s “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” also known as the “Man Jumping the Puddle” didn’t just capture a fleeting moment; it set in motion a transformative wave that resonated throughout the photographic community.
It symbolized a shift from staged, meticulous compositions to spontaneous, candid captures, emphasizing the importance of the human experience within the frame.
Branding The Decisive Moment
While Cartier-Bresson’s work spanned various subjects and locations, the philosophy of “The Decisive Moment” became synonymous with his name.
This branding wasn’t just a marketing strategy but a genuine reflection of his core belief – that there exists a singular, perfect instant when all elements of a scene align, waiting to be immortalized.
His exhibitions traversed continents, and his works found homes in prestigious institutions and private collections alike.
This global recognition wasn’t merely about the aesthetic beauty of his photos but the universality of the moments he captured.
His frames, though specific in setting, were universally relatable, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers.
Inspiration for Generations
Many budding photographers have looked at “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” and seen not just a masterfully composed shot, but a challenge.
It urged them to venture out, observe keenly, and wait patiently for their own decisive moments.
Cartier-Bresson’s influence can be seen in the works of countless contemporary photographers who prioritize candidness and authenticity in their captures.
Commercial and Educational Usage
The image has found its way into numerous photography textbooks, seminar discussions, and critical essays.
It serves as a benchmark for compositional excellence and a case study in street photography.
Commercially, the photograph and its reproductions have been sought after by collectors and enthusiasts, further amplifying its reach and impact.
Beyond the world of photography, “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” has seeped into popular culture.
Its iconic status has led to references in films, literature, and art installations.
The image represents more than just a man and a puddle; it epitomizes the dance between chance and skill, and the beauty that arises when they converge.
After our in-depth analysis of this image, let’s take a look at the main takeaways you can use next time you’re out photographing:
- Patience is Key: Wait for the right moment when every element in the frame aligns perfectly. You’ll find, often, the most extraordinary shots come from ordinary scenes.
- Observe Keenly: Train your eye to identify patterns, contrasts, and unique interactions within your environment.
- Trust Your Intuition: While technical knowledge is essential, sometimes the best shots come from gut feelings. Learn to trust your instincts when out shooting.
- Composition Matters: Make use of compositional techniques like the ‘rule of thirds’ to guide the viewer’s eye and emphasize the subject.
- Embrace Natural Elements: Natural light and shadows can add depth, contrast, and emotion to an image. Learn to work with, not against, these elements.
- Keep it Authentic: Candid moments often resonate more deeply than staged shots. Aim to capture the genuine essence of a scene or subject.
- Less is More: Sometimes, simplicity in composition and subject can lead to the most profound impact. Avoid overcomplicating a shot.
In conclusion, Henri Cartier Bresson’s “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” is more that just a snapshot in a time.
It encapsulates the soul of street photography and the profound power of the “Decisive Moment.”
Through this singular image, Cartier Bresson was able to not only capture a leaping man, but it also leaped him into photographic history.
Cartier Bresson’s work stands as a beacon for photographers and art enthusiasts alike, urging us to seek, observe, and cherish the moments that are fleeting.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer servicing the Orange County and Los Angeles areas. He specializes in portraits of individuals, couples, groups and headshots. Nate Torres is also a photography writer and content creator and educates other photographers on portrait photography, composition, editing, gear, and business. You can find his content on his personal website, social media, and YouTube Channel, as well as on blogs such as Fstoppers, Photofocus, and Imaginated. Being a former SEO consultant, Nate also teaches other photographers how to use SEO to grow their own photography business on his educational blog, Shutter SEO.