from the series The Galveston That Was / The Sawyer-Flood House, detail of bay window at front entry
Henri Cartier-Bresson, French, 1908–2004
Gelatin silver print
Image: 12 × 7 15/16 in. (30.5 × 20.2 cm) Sheet: 12 11/16 × 9 9/16 in. (32.2 × 24.3 cm)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
SUBJECT AREALanguage Arts
Using Figures of Speech
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
In 1962, Henri Cartier-Bresson and American architectural photographer Ezra Stoller were commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to photograph historic buildings in Galveston, Texas. In this photograph, the elegant bay window is partly obscured by a tree branch. The artist focuses on the grand but decaying staircase and the young girl playing on the steps.
According to the commission, Cartier-Bresson was charged with recording the details of the house’s large bay window. However, because the artist preferred photographing people, he focused on the animated figure of the young girl. As a result, the lines and textures of the historic house become a foil for the girl, the structure’s age and decay a contrast to her youthful energy. Cartier-Bresson used a small, hand-held camera that allowed him to move easily, capturing the life in and around buildings.
This photograph was included in a book titled The Galveston That Was, a project initiated by Houston architect Howard Barnstone and sponsored by the museum. Barnstone wrote the text and Cartier-Bresson and Ezra Stoller contributed the photographs. The book’s foreword acknowledges that the museum chose in Cartier-Bresson and Stoller “two pairs of eyes of such broadly different curiosity.” Stoller’s photographs are intelligent, informative, clear, direct, and technically majestic. Cartier-Bresson’s work is ultimately less concerned with the architectural significance of the buildings he was commissioned to photograph than with the way the buildings were used, and misused, by their current inhabitants. Unlike Stoller, who excluded all but the random passerby, Cartier-Bresson found people irresistible and included them in almost every picture.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a noted photojournalist and a master of the “one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself.”¹ His ability to recognize intuitively moments of significance in human events, and to give them graceful form, influenced a generation of photographers on both sides of the Atlantic.
1. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), n.p.
What do you notice about this photograph? Look closely at the foreground and background.
How does the artist use perspective? What angle do you think he was photographing from?
Describe the different patterns in the photograph. Do they correspond with each other? How?
Notice the cropping of the composition. How would this work be different if the whole house was shown? Compare this photo to Cartier-Bresson's other photo of the same house.
Consider the leaves on the right side. How do they alter the view of the house? Do they soften it? Do they contrast with the house?
What adjectives would you use to describe the style of this house?
How would this image have been different if the artist would have used color?
Consider the relationship between the horizontal patterns of the stairs and the wood on the house’s entrance. How does the artist use line in this image?
Focus on the up-close view of the staircase that nearly dwarfs the house in the background. How does this influence our ideas about the house? What other words could describe the look of this house?
Describe how the sense of movement in the figure walking up the stairs contrasts with the stillness of the house. Do they contrast in other ways?
Is there a feeling of tension in the work of art? Or is there more of a flow? Or both?
What does the photograph tell you about the type of neighborhood the house belongs to?
In many of his photographs, the artist explored formal relationships. What personal connections can you make with this image? Where do you think it is situated? Can you see in what time it was built?
- Working in cooperative groups, have students write brief summaries for the photograph.
- After writing their summaries, ask students to develop a new title for the photo using a figure of speech (i.e., Children Run Up the Steps as if They Had Wings on Their Feet).
- From these, allow students to select the most effective titles/summaries for the photograph and explain the reasons for the choice. Display the new title and summary with the photograph.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing The Sawyer-Flood House and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of The Sawyer-Flood House is familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider