5 Frames – Including a Homage to Henri – from a Trip to France – By Thorsten Wulff

The Museum of Modern Art celebrated Henri Cartier-Bressons early work with an exhibition in 1987. The poster for the show, sponsored by a Champagne brand and printed on lush cardboard, sported a slightly blurred cyclist passing under a Fibonacci inspired spiral stairwell.

Young Henri got his first Leica in Marseille 1932 and went around the countryside of southern France to test the abilities of the small German camera. I still own that poster, 34 years after buying it at the MoMa store. The caption does not tell you much, just the place and year. Hyères 1932.

With the help of Julien and Julie of the Hyères tourism office I found the staircase in the Avenue Edith Wharton. Edith was an American born (1862) novelist, in 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. She lived in Paris and Hyères and worked tirelessly in charitable efforts for her adopted country during World War I.

After D-Day 2019 I planned to go to Hyères and look up the spot from where HCB took the picture. In 2020 we only made it to Brittany, but 2021 the time was right. The basic plan was to go to England and visit Ian Berry, but being on the Amber List made this impossible. I missed my friends Isabel and Francois with their Hotel in Grasse anyway, so down south we went.

In the 1980s I shot on Nikon F3s, and this year my love for that camera got seriously rekindled. The camera was filled with with a roll of HP5+ and a 35mm f/2 Nikkor was the only lens I brought on the Trip.

The trip started with heavy rain in the valley of the river Rhone. We parked on a plateau belonging to a lovely vineyard which offers free overnight spots for camper vans, and a tasting of course. This picture is from the next morning with the fog just lifting. I shot box speed (400 ASA) and developed 5 minutes in 20° Celsius HC 110. The HP5 is amazingly robust, I wonder why I switched to TMAX in the 80s. Must be the Kodak Marketing.

These images are printed on Ilford Ilfospeed III Pearl, a 18×24 box from the 1990s I found in a friends darkroom in pristine condition. These reproductions of the paper prints are done just with an D3 and an 85 f 1,4. Printed on a Leitz Focomat Ic, which gives the nice black frame around the images.

This church, Notre-Dame du Haut, was built by Le Corbusier, replacing the original which was destroyed 1944. It is located on a hill in Ronchamp nestled in the Vosges mountains. A highly spiritual site full of architectural surprises, with additional buildings by Renzo Piano.

No trip to the south of France is complete for me without stopping in Grasse. In the fall of 2017 I went there looking for David Douglas Duncan, and discovered the Hotel of Isabel and Francois in the mountains overlooking Cannes there. A wedding was scheduled in the towns cathedral, with bride and groom and the whole party waiting in the shadows. These kids climbed on the bike to get out of the sun, and boredom. I was glad just to have the 35mm, for me the perfect lens for all occasions.

Cannes is just a short drive from Grasse. The film festival was in full swing, with a red carpet premiere of Wes Andersons ‘The French Dispatch’, a movie celebrating the journalism of the ‘New Yorker’ featuring Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray. I discovered this Pulp Fiction mural beneath a small bridge, not far from the beach. While there were strict rules for everybody attending the festival, the beach life in Cannes was relaxed and almost back to normal.

Finally, Hyères. On a hot afternoon we walked up Avenue Edith Wharton. The staircase is at the very end of the road, no one was around. Certainly no bike riders. After rechecking Henri’s image on my phone I went down to the next street and waited. After twenty minutes or so one bicycle turned up. I ran after the guy and said, “I need a favor, you have to cycle down that road for me please”.

Luckily he did not mind that and went up the Avenue. I had only one shot, raved up the stairs and waited. The F3 cocked and ready with 1/60 second and f/5,6, for the slight blur. From the spot on the stairs is no way to see the rider, you have to guess, and then he is there… snap. Done. Off he was, with my “Merci” lingering in the hot air.

A lady living in the house opposite the stairs applauded from her window, calling it a ‘belle photograph’. So that was done, after 34 years I remade HCBs image from 1932. I had no idea if I had the right moment, the first thing back in Berlin was developing the film. I pushed the button a fraction of a second too early, in Henri’s image the bike is free of the railing. But hey, it is just an homage. And what about the TARDIS in that corner? The Doctor was not around in 32 either.

Hyères is a lovely spot, you should go there if you are in the area. Walk down Avenue Edith Wharton and take a picture in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson. And maybe bring a friend on a bike.

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19 thoughts on “5 Frames – Including a Homage to Henri – from a Trip to France – By Thorsten Wulff”

  1. Oh man, great article. Love the shots. I also saw the exhibit. Humbling. The guy was really that good. Made me want to burn my cameras!

  2. Excellent article with superb photos. The homage to HCB is perfect. Now if only you get get someone to jump over a big puddle.

  3. That’s a great story about the homage photo (which turned out really well I think!) – and a great article in general, swinging back and forth in time!

    1. Thank you, Sroyon! After I toyed with a monorail all spring of 21 it felt good to get back to the F3. Because they had quite a price hike I got this one from Japan with a cute little dent in the finder, and it asked for a special assignment.

  4. A wonderful article, Thorsten.
    I particularly liked the way you’ve presented your images as prints. It seems to enhance the timeless quality that you’ve captured.
    Pity about the “porta-pissoir” though, no such prissiness in Henri’s day of course.

  5. Well done for tracking down the location. There cannot be many places so unchanged in 90 years! It is a shame that the railings have been replaced. The ones in HCB’s time had much more pleasing curves than the current ones.

  6. This is great, Thorsten: touching, funny – oh, and and nicely photographed too. Of course, with a modern megasensor camera, you could have captured 30 frames in the time it took the cyclist to pass across your view, and picked the perfect position – but where’s the fun, or the skill, in that?

    Pictures of the South of France do touch a painful spot for those of us marooned in Global Britain but that’s not your problem. We will move freely again, one day. (And when I do, I’ll bring my bike and ride past any landmark you care to nominate, as many times as you like!)

    1. Very Good, dear Clive, we will do that! I just returned from two weeks in the south of England, lovely place and extremely nice people! So there will be 5 frames of that soon, again with a connection to HCB, but on a more personal base this time.

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