The above photograph is by Martin Munkácsi. It was taken in 1929 or 1930, and has long been known as “Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika”. Cartier-Bresson said it was the only photograph that influenced him: “In 1932, I saw a photograph by Martin Munkácsi of three black children running into the sea… [it] made me suddenly realise that photography could reach eternity through the moment. I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera… I said damn it! I took my camera and went out into the street.”

Cartier-Bresson had spent years studying painting, including two years (1928/29) with André Lhote, who taught, in particular, figure painting – how to represent the human figure’s physical presence, movements, and expressions. Hence Cartier-Bresson’s astonishment that a photograph could do something that he’d thought only the plastic arts (drawing, painting and sculpture) could achieve.

Munkácsi learnt his trade as a newspaper photographer after the First World War. He specialised in sports photography, which at the time could only be shot outdoors in bright light. But he managed to do this with remarkable attention to composition, which required technical as well as artistic skill. And it was the meticulous handling of the plastic forms, expressing such spontaneity and joy in life, that had so impressed Cartier-Bresson.

Munkácsi summed up his approach to photography in an article called “Think While You Shoot”: never pose your subjects; let them move about naturally; all great photographs today are snapshots; take back views, take running views; pick unexpected angles, but never without reason.

In the early 1930s, Martin Munkácsi took a series of photographs along the west side of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on glass plate negatives. These pictures, combining architecture and people in the street, show the same meticulous attention to composition, to the flow and gesture of line through a picture, that had made such an impression on Cartier-Bresson a couple of years before.

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