Unfortunately, this photograph is no longer on permanent display at the V&A. It is in a study collection, available by appointment only, so I was unable to view it on a recent visit. However, there are numerous reproductions in print and online. This is one of the better examples.
This is a curious image, not one of HCB’s best – I prefer the keen observation and humour of his 1937 photos from of the crowds at the coronation of George VI that were exhibited in Strange and Familiar. It is not even that good technically, with its motion blur, clogged-up shadows and heavy grain. However it is pretty much the image that defines ‘the decisive moment’.
Look at the action. The man is crossing a large puddle or flooded yard. He is the first to have come that way for a while – the water is almost entirely unrippled – and has taken two or three rapid steps (we know they were rapid because the water has not rippled far yet) along the makeshift ladder and launched himself off the end.
HCB catches the action with the man’s foot about a centimetre above the water – only a few milliseconds before touching down and causing another ripple or a big splash to destroy the pristine surface. What happens next? Will he keep his feet dry or will the water overtop his shoes? We don’t know how deep it is. Sometimes I imagine a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ chest-deep puddle.
If that were all there is to the image it would be interesting enough, but there is a Barthesian ‘punctum’, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. Not immediately obvious until one has spent a bit of time viewing the image is the figure in the background poster mirroring the man’s leap. Was he conscious of it? Probably not. Was HCB conscious of it at the time of taking the shot, waiting for the man to poise himself in imitation? We don’t know, but he would have seen it when examining his contacts – and had the genius to print it.
HCB tells us (in L’amour tout court) that this was a lucky shot, grabbed blind through the railings. To some extent that is true (he cannot have timed his shutter release to the millisecond) but I am reminded of the great golfing put-down (variously attributed to Gary Player, Tom Watson or Ben Hogan) ‘Yes, it was a lucky shot, and the more I practice the luckier I get.’