To Stand and Not to Pass

July 31, 2016

"Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika" (c. 1930) by Martin Munkacsi

The photograph that launched Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic career was not one he took himself.  As a footloose art student returning home to his native Marseilles in 1931 from a sojourn in Africa’s Ivory Coast, he first saw what he later described as “the only photograph to have influenced me.”  Published in a French arts magazine, the image by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi showed three naked boys frolicking in the surf at Lake Tanganyika.  The boys were seen from behind running toward the water, their dark bodies as sleek as seals, silhouetted against white waves breaking against the shore. “When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in the wave I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera,” Cartier-Bresson said later.  "He made me suddenly realize that photographs could reach eternity through the moment."

The following year Cartier-Bresson bought his first Leica 35mm camera with a 50mm lens, which he said became the “optical extension of my eye.”  First sold in 1925, the Leica represented a significant technological advance over the bulky large- and medium-format cameras then in use.  Compact and durable, the Leica was capable of shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second, which enabled photographers to capture a range of movement unheard of with older cameras. The Leica quickly became the camera of choice for a new generation of photographers that included Walker Evans, Robert Capa, André Kertész, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.    

The contradiction inherent in all photographs is that they make still images of a world in motion.  Initially, this was possible only by bringing the world to a standstill, because shutter speeds were too slow to capture movement.  This is why early 19th-century photographs were always posed, and human subjects often appeared as if rigor mortis had set in.  Shutter speeds had improved by the late 19th century, but cameras were still too bulky to allow photographers to immerse themselves fully in the flow of life.  The Leica now made it possible for photographers to do their work without people playing to the camera.  Cartier-Bresson went a step further by covering the chrome parts of his camera with black tape to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

Cartier-Bresson’s reaction to the photograph that launched his career may seem puzzling at first.  How do you reach eternity through the moment?  A moment, which by definition has no duration, would appear to be on the other end of the scale from eternity, which is unending.  We normally think of a moment being something like a movie still, which follows the moment before and precedes the moment after.  A photograph can be thought of the same way, like a moment trapped in amber.  You look at Munkacsi’s image of the three boys playing by the water’s edge at Lake Tanganyika, and you wonder what became of them.  They could not have been more than 14 or 15 years old when the picture was taken in 1930, a lifetime ago.  Munkacsi, who was 34 when he shot it, later emigrated to New York and became a high-end fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar.   He died in 1963 at age 67.  Moment succeeds moment, inexorably – and we can never quite lay hold of any of them.    

Perhaps St. Augustine can set us straight on the matter of eternity.  Augustine wondered in his Confessions what happened before God created the heavens and the earth.  He reasoned that there was no “before,” because God abided in eternity, “which stands and does not pass, which has in itself no past or future.”  The subjects of Munkacsi’s photograph obviously had a past and a future, as did the photographer himself.  Yes, the image depicts a moment in time, but it is also lifted out of time, transformed by Munkacsi’s artistry.  The boys run toward the water, their feet kicking up spray in the wet sand, their bodies glistening in the sun.  They may have lived out their lives in some particular time and place, but they are alive forever in this photograph, not frozen in time but timeless.  This is what Cartier-Bresson saw in Munkacsi’s photograph, a moment that stands but does not pass, a window into eternity.