I saw the advertisement about the Ansel Adams show at the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Ansel Adams is the guy who took all those black and white photos of Yosemite Park.
I had been at Yosemite a few years ago so I thought it might be nice to have my memories refreshed. When I travel places I do the sightseeing and take the requisite photos but when I get home I’m always left with the feeling that I missed out on something.
Maybe by seeing the Yosemite Park photos taken by an expert I would finally appreciate the place.
When I got to the museum I was stunned to experience what was the probably the best photo exhibit I will ever see.
Not only were the classics by Ansel Adams on display (“Vernal Fall, Yosemite Valley,” 1920, “Still Life, San Francisco,” 1932 and “Silverton, Colorado,” 1951) but the museum was filled with another show entitled Light Works, 100 years of photos which had some of most famous photographs ever taken.
At first glance all the photos were fairly innocuous looking.
Just row after row of black and white’s and kind of smallish. What’s the big deal?
Well thank the Lord for Docent Maxine Hersh whose tour started at 2 p.m.
Somehow she managed to open my little brain up and let in some light.
She got the group to slow down and actually told us what to look for in these photos.
There was the photo by Eadweard Muybridge father of the moving pictures with a donkey and a man. Here was the Alfred Stieglitz famous 1907 “The Steerage.”
At first this photo looked like yet another dark and dreary black and white of some people on a big ship.
But she began to point out the geometry of the composition with the gang plank, the smokestack, the ladder leading upward and the man with the circular straw hat.
Suddenly its magic began to emerge. And as I proceeded to look at more photos
I saw how classic photos always contain geometry.
Ansel Adams Silverton, Colorado with its varying tones of black, gray and white was all about triangles.
All those steeples and roof tops forming triangles in the foreground and the big gray mountain in the background as one giant triangle.
We went on to look at the familiar American classic by Dorothea Lange entitled “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” 1936.
This photo is also about geometry with the mother at its center a stunning vision of triangularity and strength framed by her two exhausted children who lean against her with their backs to us.
And then we got to “Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris” 1932, the photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, which was the Time Magazines selection as Photo of the Century.
This photo was another example of geometry with the use of a wrought iron fence and a ladder as well as the image of a man leaping over a shallow body of water with his shadow right below him as his foot is about to hit the water.
The comedy of a man about to fall into water juxtaposed with the view of tombstones in the background makes this photo not only an example of Bresson’s ‘ decisive moment’ but also gives the photo gravitas and depth of meaning. As I looked at the photo more carefully I began to understand why this was the best photo of the century.
I thought about the show the next day and I realized that I had never understood the importance of geometry in photos and how our life is filled with geometric structure as well.
At its most basic we have the geometry of day and night, the geometry of work versus play, the geometry of hard days framed by restful nights, of busy weekdays surrounded by slower weekends and the geometry of life itself framed by birth and death.
As the Cartier-Bresson photo reveals, to make a truly great photo you need more than just geometry.
What made Behind the Gare St. Lizard, Paris the photo of the century was the way Cartier-Bresson quietly told us about life.
We are here only for an instant and very soon indeed we will all be sinking back into the ever after. But before we sink underneath the water it is best to pause for a moment and look around to see what there is to see.
To appreciate life in all its glory and its pain. This is what all the mystics tell us.
This is what Buddha told us and what Christ told us. And all of our best writers told us the same thing. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, E.B.White’s Ring of Time, say it loud and clear.
Pause for a moment, look around you, take a deep breath and try to enjoy the ride.
So thank you Henri Cartier-Bresson, Docent Maxine Hersh and Nassau County Museum of Art for letting me pause for a brief moment like that funny little leaping man in the photo.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Well Cartier- Bresson’s photo only took me 877 words to describe.
Not bad. I only wish this essay was could have been equal to his photo.