Henri Cartier-Bresson was present at many important events of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War, to the German occupation of France, the partition of India and the Chinese revolution, Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist of the highest rank. Throughout most of his photographic career there was one constant, his Leica 35mm. The French novelist and critic Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues once said that Cartier-Bresson used his Leica "rather as the Surrealists tried to use automatic writing: as a window that leaves one permanently open for visitations of the unconscious and the unpredictable" (Ebony 2004, 188). Cartier-Bresson in his most famous collection The Decisive Moment, sought to capture life in its singular essence, the living essence of life. In his own words he offers upon discovering the Leica, "It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found itdetermined to "trap" life-to preserve life in the act of living". (Sontag 1973, 185). This act of trapping of capturing the decisive moment would become the hallmark of his photography. Cartier-Bresson's vision allowed him to capture those decisive moments where most of us would only see the mundane. Nietzsche suggests that, "To experience a thing as beautiful means to experience it necessarily wrongly" (Sontag 1973, 184). Cartier-Bresson understanding of the world often flew in the face of such a dour supposition.
One photograph that uniquely and elegantly captures that moment in which one's attention is immediately and intensely drawn to the beautiful out of the mundane is Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare St. Lazare. On the face of it we see a man running across a large puddle behind what is a train terminal in Paris. However, a formal analysis of the image reveals delightful similarities that would otherwise be missed in the instant (Savedoff 1997, 208-209). Initially, the fortuitous timing of the picture as the man has just stepped off the ladder and has not broken the mirror-like surface of the water. Secondly, the slats of the ladder match the repeated metallic bars of the fence behind him. The poster on the wall features an image of a dancer leaping recapitulating the main action of the photo. Finally, the ripples in the puddle repeat the circular elements peaking out from the surface of the water. The schematization of the moment in time reveals an aesthetic symmetry between the environment and action, between the animate and inanimate, which is awe-inspiring and elegantly beautiful. Some might complain that the fortuitousness of such an image is perhaps too fortuitous, and indeed such a complaint might be legitimate. We are apt, when it comes to photos, to lend our confidence too quickly in its veracity (Savedoff 1997, 207). This easily given confidence evidenced by the mischievous appeal of "photoshopped" pictures, in which images are digitally altered in such a way as to appear legitimate. In a painting, the repetition that is envisioned in Cartier-Bresson's photo would seem contrived and