Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment concept applied to Renger-Patzsch and Alberto Alicata’s works
Is it possible to find a process of linearity and development of similar works within the overall world and history of photography? Is it correct to refer back to past photographers when analyzing contemporary ones? Is there a photography heritage that contemporary artists unavoidably and unconsciously build their new photography on? This essay will try to answer each of those questions, by analyzing the concept of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” applied to two different photographers’ works. I will discuss the question on whether or not it is always possible to apply the “decisive moment” idea to any photograph, and specifically to the two I will analyze.
I will focus on Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Forest Clearing at Dawn.
Albert Renger-Patzsch, Forest Clearing at Dawn, 1920s. Vintage warm-toned gelatin silver print. 17 x 23 cm. stamp and reproduction limitation stamp on the verso.
I will then focus as well on an untitled diptych by Alberto Alicata.
2. Alberto Alicata, untitled, 2015. Diptych for a workshop-masterclass by Contemporary Art photographer Mustafa Sabbagh. Digital photographs edited in post-production.
In order to better analyze and understand an artist’s work, it is important to look at his/her personal history, social background, and artistic influences as well.
Regarding Albert Renger-Patzsch, it is significant to mention that the work I chose is “unusual” because of its subject matter. In fact, most Renger-Patzsch’s works subjects are close-ups of mass-produced objects, natural forms, and industrial subjects. Only rarely, we find natural landscapes like the one chosen for this essay. Born in 1897 in Würzburg, Germany, Renger-Patzsch began to make photographs at the age of 12 and, since then, never stopped. He learnt about photography and making photographs from his father, who was an amateur with an extensive camera collection. He studied chemistry after the First World War, and then worked as a press photographer in the ’20s. He became director of photography at Folkwang und Auriga publishing house in Hagen, whose owner, Ernst Fuhrmann, able to get Renger-Patzsch’s talent, allowed him to publish some of his photographs in the series of book The World of Plants. In 1925, only after Fuhrmann’s support, Renger-Patzsch realized images for the book Das Chorgestühl von Kappenberg (The choir stall of Cappenberg), which made him a freelancer effectively. He produced a large number of photographs mostly about the entire world around him (animals, plants, industrial buildings, mass-produced objects, and so on). Most of those works were published in 1928 by Kurt Wolff in Die Welt ist Schön (The World Is Beautiful). It is important to mention that the original title Renger-Patzsch chose for his book was Die Dinge (Things), which reveals a lot about his objective attitude towards the world and his own photographs too. It is precisely his attitude that makes him be associated with the German movement New Objectivity, meant by artists, writers, and musicians as a way of publicly living life with a practical engagement, rather than a political and social involvement. About the value of photography, he himself stated that “the secret of a good photograph—which, like a work of art, can have esthetic qualities—is its realism ... Let us therefore leave art to artists and endeavor to create, with the means peculiar to photography and without borrowing from art, photographs which will last because of their photographic qualities" (Renger-Patzsch). In fact, Renger-Patzsch became more and more a “New Objective” photographer, as he got older and constantly worked in touch with architects, industry, and publishers: it is relevant to notice that, not randomly, in his production, throughout the years, the industrial subjects replace more and more the natural objects.
Concerning Alberto Alicata’s life, a completely different path has to be referred to, in order to get a substantial understanding of his works, and in particular, of the one taken in consideration here. Alicata was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1983. He got a degree in Architecture, and then moved to Rome, where he currently lives, to study at the Roman School of Photography and Film. He began to work as a photographer for reportages of live concerts and disco-events of important and well-known musicians, such as Skin, and DJs, such as Steve Aoki. As he says, live concerts and DJ-sets are not the easiest context to begin with when dealing with professional photography, because of the chaotic and constant light-changes environment. However, thanks to this challenging early career experience, he improved his skills as photographer day by day. He has received important awards, such as Honorable Mention of the Int'l Photography Awards in 2014, the first prize of the London International Creative Competition, the second prize at Fine Art Photography Awards, Honorable Mentions of the Int'l Photography Awards, the Moscow International Foto Awards, and also of the Prix de la Photographie in Paris in 2015. He was selected in 2015 by the MAXXI (National Museum of XXI Century in Rome) for a Masterclass with famous and renowned photographer Mustafa Sabbagh. It is for this special class that Alicata realized the diptych I chose to analyze, as the students were asked by Sabbagh to create a diptych with a photograph of a model in a studio, and a photograph of an outside. Alicata lays the foundations of his work entirely on contemporary digital photography, which also includes the use, extensive or minimum according to the occasion, of post-production editing and retouching mainly with Photoshop. He also works on different projects, among which are series of fashion, popular culture iconic still life, portraiture, and advertisement photographs.
Merely looking at their lives and productions, one might argue that Renger-Patzsch and Alicata can never be on the same page, because of their different historical backgrounds as well as their, almost opposite ways of dealing with photography. One was completely into photography as a tool to represent reality objectively. The other has been using photography for both expressing his view of the world and giving an objective reportage of events. However, through an attentive and deep analysis, the two photographers are less distant, artistically speaking, than they look at first sight. Renger-Patzsch’s Forest Clearing at Dawn shows a natural landscape, as the title suggests, a forest at dawn. The rays of sunshine seem to come from the trunks of the trees in the background, while these, in turn, are so bright that look like disappearing in a fog of light. The subject is clearer in the foreground, as here it is less illuminated. The atmosphere given by the dawn-light evokes a sense of magic spread by the very everydayness and naturalness of the moment captured. Mostly the same sensations are recalled by Alicata’s diptych, especially if we take into consideration the photograph on the right side. Here, the photographer, asked to take a picture from an outside, chose to capture an everyday moment focusing on the branches of some trees. The lower side of the photograph is blurred, and from this, we may guess that the photograph was taken looking through a window. The cold colors of the sky contrast with the dark and shady shapes of the trees, which in fact look strong and majestic, although naked. While Alicata took the photograph from below, giving the subject a prominent importance, Renger-Patzsch took the picture from a frontal view, provided the subject with a sense of deep space.
I will go on analyzing now both photographs by looking at them trying to answer the question on whether or not there is the decisive moment Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about in his 1952 famous book Images à la sauvette (The Decisive Moment). “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative” (Cartier-Bresson). Renger-Patzsch used to focus on showing reality as it is, without letting his or others’ personal opinion and point of view interfere with what he objectively sees through the camera. However, the very fact that he, as well as any other photographer has always done, chose, because he had seen, to capture that specific moment of dawn rather than another, from that specific perspective and not a different one, seems to lower the perfect and objective act claimed by Renger-Patzsch’s himself. Of course, that consideration does not exclude entirely the idea of using photography as a tool aimed to solely reproduce the reality of the world around, but in fact, it is photography itself that excludes, from its intrinsic characteristics, a total objectivity. “Photography is seen as an acute manifestation of the individualized “I”, the homeless private self-astray in an overwhelming world - mastering reality by a fast visual anthologizing of it” (Sontag). The camera itself cannot avoid to be biased according to the photographer’s eye looking into it. It is possible to talk about objectivity only referring to it as an attitude of not reproducing reality by twisting and giving it a particular connotation through perspectives, colors, or post-production editing. Only on this respect, one might say both Renger-Patzsch and Alicata’s photographs are objective. Alicata, in regard with the concept of the decisive moment, believes “in a skill of observing things, carefully looking at the moment, or even at more moments at once. Of course, eventually it is you taking the photograph by clicking in a specific moment, but that clicking is just the last step of an attentive exploration of what surrounds you. That is true for street and reportage photography, while in studio I do believe more in a person’s ideas from what he/her has studied and worked on. […] I would never consider myself as an objective photographer, because most my work derives from my personal ideas and views” (Alicata).
Starting from a basic exclusion of the really objectivity within the photographic process, after choosing what to focus on through the lens, both Renger-Patzsch and Alicata waited for a specific moment for clicking, even though they did so in different ways. Renger-Patzsch had very few opportunities to click and get the photograph we look at today, because analog tools did not allow him either to check his photographs just after taking them or to take too many photographs in a small amount of time. On the other hand, Alicata did not face the problem of time or number of shots, thanks to the digital camera he used. It is relevant to mention that analog camera and digital camera differ one from the other in terms of not only technical structure of the object itself, but also in terms of what each of them allows the photographer to do. Alicata’s digital camera surely changes the very idea of decisive moment, since he did not really need to wait for the moment of “epiphany” to take the picture, but in fact, he could take as many pictures as he wanted. However, the decisive moment for Alicata is just postponed to the moment when he, afterwards, had to choose the photograph (that we look at today) among tens or even hundreds of pictures taken sooner. “I learnt to detach myself from my works in order to better analyze and pick them out, especially when you end up having many shots” (Alicata). Renger-Patzsch, instead, had to deal with that moment precisely when taking the photograph. He perhaps waited for the sunrays to choose the way he liked the most, the way in which they looked like some god’s power-light coming out to make the forest look pure. He unlikely took the image as soon as got himself to stand in front of that scenario, especially given the fact that he strongly had the desire to show, through his photographs, the world as it is, rather than the world as it looks at the first glance.
Although in such different ways because of technical reason, Renger-Patzsch and Alicata unavoidably had to deal with a decisive moment that allows us to make comparisons between their works. In fact, it would not result pointless or useless to ponder over a possible link between the two photographers, as in fact, history of art and photography owns a large number of links between artists from different times and backgrounds. For instance, French artist Marcel Duchamp was the main reference for tens of pop-art photographers and artists, such as Andy Warhol, because of the idea of realizing artworks through appropriation (Duchamp’s ready-mades have to be considered as one of the very first forms of appropriation in art). Even unconsciously, a contemporary artist is likely to create works that, either about form or narrative, refer back to past artists’ works. “Unconsciously” because many works of art, in the course of time, become part of the popular culture of a specific historical time; therefore, the ideas of authorship and authenticity got less and less importance in the context of popular culture, also for art itself becoming a mass-produced commodity. Mass culture society leads to the commodification of culture (Adorno), which in turn leads to people’s misperception of culture itself. How many times do children or uneducated people recognize (without knowing) a work of art, a symphony, or a song they look at or listen to when watching a movie or an advertisement on TV? Here it comes a sad anecdote, which shows how naïve (or ignorant) people are nowadays. In Italy, advertisers are (badly) used to including famous and important music masterpieces of the past as soundtracks of artistically irrelevant commercials. Italians are so divided according to their ability to not only recognize but also acknowledge the authorship of the song they listen to: the ones with a good music culture, and the ones with no music culture at all. Once, I found myself dealing with a person who claimed to know I Want It All by Queen because he listened to it in the commercial on TV. He did not even call it by title, as he had no idea that was not a song composed on purpose for the commercial on those days. Besides making me upset, that episode made me also realize how popular culture and new media affect our knowledge of art and culture in general, and of music in that specific case.
Alberto Alicata probably never saw Renger-Patzsch’s Forest Clearing at Dawn, so it would be wrong to affirm that Alicata was directly inspired by Renger-Paztsch’s work. However, it is not impossible to argue consciously about an artistic connection between the two, simply since Renger-Patzsch’s photography has had an important role as being a cardinal point of all the history of photography. As well as there would be no Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring if there had been no Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, one could argue that Alicata’s photography would not exist if Renger-Patzsch did not produce his works either. The two photographs are similar concerning both the subject matter and the way they were taken. Analyzing the decisive moment in which any photograph was taken enables the viewer to make comparisons between works, which are apparently different from each other, and still alike from a deeper point of view. When Cartier-Bresson wrote about the decisive moment, he could only take into account his way of taking photographs, precisely because subjectivity is required to be part of the world of photography, either as protagonists and creators, or as active viewers and researchers. He did not take into consideration other forms of photography, nor did he mention any possible development of decisive moment as photography would have developed as well. Cartier-Bresson referred to a precise moment in the life of the street photographer when he used to face a precious instant that would have never come back again: the instant that makes the photographer become an artist. Renger-Patzsch’s photograph of the dawn, and Alicata’s photograph of the trees both were taken (or chosen) after an instant of epiphany, an instant of genius, which allowed both of them to become artists, even for a while only.
As Italian artist Federico Grandicelli states that the idea of decisive moment is applicable on street photography only, since in studio or other contexts, such as the camera obscura, which he uses as atelier, it is almost impossible to think about a fortuitous instant upon which the photograph is taken (Grandicelli). Alicata rather claims that, although the work in studio enables him to have control over every variable (light, composition, colors, and so on), he always seeks for leaving at least an edge of fortuity; to do so, he lets his models to move and act as they want, so that he better gets a more natural moment or action he could not photograph if he would have the whole control over everything (Alicata).
Anyone can have that moment of epiphany when exploring the world around, but it is the artist-photographer the only one able to capture that decisive moment to make it an eternal and unique work of art.
Adorno, W. Theodor. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Alicata, Alberto. Interview via email. 2016, March. Web.
Cartier-Bresson, Henri. Images à la Sauvette. Simon and Shuster: New York, 1952. Print.
Grandicelli, Federico. Presentation of the exhibition Equivalenze. 3/3: Rome, 2016.
Renger-Patzsch, Die Welt ist schön. Einhundert photographische. Einhorn-Verl: Munich. 1928. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Penguin: New York, 1977. Print.
List of illustrations
Albert Renger-Patzsch, Forest Clearing at Dawn,1920s. Vintage warm-toned gelatin silver print. 17 x 23 cm. stamp and reproduction limitation stamp on the verso.
Alberto Alicata, untitled, 2015. Diptych for a workshop-masterclass by Contemporary Art photographer Mustafa Sabbagh. Digital photographs edited in post-production.
Albert Renger-Patzsch, Euphorbia Grandicornis , 1921-25. Gelatin silver photograph 23.0 x 16.8 cm image, 23.9 x 18.0 cm sheet.
Albert Renger-Patzsch, Shoemaking Irons, Fagus Works, Alfeld, 1928.
Albert Renger-Patzsch, Zeche Bonifacius, Wetterschacht, 1947-48. Gelatin silver photograph, vintage. 16.5 x 22.5 cm
Alberto Alicata, advertising photograph.
Alberto Alicata, shot from the series of photographs taken during the Fashion Week in Milan, Italy.
Alberto Alicata, shot from the series about a live concert of Skin’s.