Can Henri Cartier-Bresson’s signature be reduced to the decisive moment he made famous? His photographs, his quotes and his modus operandi all scream a resounding NO! 🙂
You say Henri-Cartier Bresson, you hear decisive moment. An ability to click at the right moment, at the height of the emotional potential of a scene. Many have written about it and many more tried to replicate it.
To me, this timing concept is insufficient to explain HCB’s genius. Being pretty good at timing my shots myself, and not having a single one that looks like a Cartier-Bresson makes this painfully obvious to me 😉
To illustrate this, here are 3 of my photographs which are all about the decisive moment, those couple of seconds when a ray of light shines or a ballet of planes locks into a nice pattern, then fades away into a non remarquable, random arrangement unworthy of being noticed, polluting the scene rather than making it. Yet, none of those photographs are anything like what HCB produced.
That “decisive moment” term isn’t enough. We photographers almost made it legend, but it needs qualifying. What really defines HCB’s talent is his process and the vast number of ingredients it combines into that final, culminating, decisive click.
The term “decisive moment” is the English title of HCB’s most famous book. However the original title, in French obviously, wasn’t “Le moment décisif” but “Images à la sauvette”.
The original title is hard to translate into English, but would loosely mean “stolen images” or, better though clumsier, “the unseen photographer”. The English title – The Decisive Moment – was a quote pulled out by HCB from a text by Cardinal de Retz, a clergyman also responsible for the premonitory “Arms which are not tempered by laws quickly become anarchy”. It probably stuck because it neatly sums up a complex process into one single task. Or feels like it does.
I believe the semantic difference between the two titles is responsible for the frequent misunderstanding of HCB’s priorities in photography. My intuition is that HCB might have been a quantum physics expert had he chosen another path, seeing how strictly he feared the observer principle stating that we cannot observe something without disturbing it 😉
Some who saw him work report how discretely he approached a scene so as not to influence its unfolding. And he himself explained at length that photographs should be a reflection of reality and a representation of the world as it is. Authenticity, to my (very limited) knowledge of his work, was his top priority.
His distaste for cropping is well known – though several of his most famous images are cropped. I think one reason for preferring to leave the borders of photographs in was to easily be certain that no editor had cropped into images without permission. And HCB did all that was in his power to get framing and composition right in camera. But I still believe it was more important to him to not disturb the unfolding events than to do so in order to get the perfect frame without cropping.
Another reason to break down the misinterpretation walls of that decisive moment is evident in his contact sheets. It was not rare for him to take 5 or 10 photographs of the same scene (unlike William Eggleson, for example, who never shot more than one). But the two are not incompatible: going with the flow to let intuition find multiple decisive moments, or climb ever higher peaks of well composed meaning, seemed to be his M.O.
It is amusing that a man involved with communist publications and not particularly interested in religion was drawn to Buddhism. Out of all his quotes (that I’ve read), many about intuition and instinct, one stands out to me, like a Zen aphorism (emphasis mine):
“A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”– Henri Cartier-Bresson
People who knew him remarked on how effortless his work appeared to be. This quote explains it. Getting into a state of flow and letting images appear and force him to click at peaks of clarity must indeed have appeared easier than the laboured approach of those who prefer to set the scene. Martial artists and meditators will understand this immediately.
And another of his quotes perfectly sums up how photographers should go about making images (emphasis mine).
“Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.”– Henri Cartier-Bresson
This is something I have been trying to convey over and over and over again. This is what other artists describe as maintaining flow. When you want to put your intuition in control of your photography, you need (1) to train your intuition, all your life, and (2) to avoid any disruption to the state of flow during which it can manifest itself. To photographers who love cameras with 192 menu entries and 7 custom buttons, this all sounds like fluff. It isn’t. It’s psychology, and is vital advice from one of the greatest photographers to ever grace the planet. One among many other hints he gives us. Ignore this at your peril.
I believe HCB followed the unfolding of a scene (that appealed to his intellect), intuitively framing and composing all along, and bursts of clarity caused him to press the shutter button at every serendipitous alignement of the components of the frame. That, to me, is the definition of photographic genius.
Early on, Henri Cartier-Bresson received painting lessons from his uncle. When the poor man died at war, strict, rigourous André Lhote took up the mantle. HCB’s painting ambitions were to reconcile the French tradition with modernist trends. He was no diletante. And internalising composition was essential to him. Two more quotes are illuminating here:
“This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.”– Henri Cartier-Bresson
No rules of thirds, no spiral whatever, no golden fib. Importantly, no rules (HCB left Lhote because he didn’t enjoy his rule-base training) but – I imagine – a constant effort to organise visual information in the most pleasing way and to review his work and success or failures to do so (emphasis mine):
In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.– Henri Cartier-Bresson
This active development of instinct is what left-brainers cannot wrap their minds around. To them, the mind must be in control, rather than the intuition unhindered by thought. While this is widely understood, few actually know how to strengthen their intuition like a muscle. You cannot work with rules in the field. There is simply no time for it. You can only develop your intuition and let it take control. This forms the basis of almost everything I write on DS and is the core concept in the course I am now working on.
I guess only his close friends and relatives know for sure, but it appears Henri Cartier-Bresson read litterature even more than he practised painting or photography. The man was a thinker, a humanist and this shows in his choice of subjects. Many may have been missions and commissions for magazines, it was no accident he was chosen for them.
Obviously, this shows in his images. The sensitivity to human events, tiny details or powerful maelstroms, can only come from intense prior reflection on those topics.
It’s sadly ironic that the intellectually fertile land that gave birth to HCB now has its head stuck up so far its bureacratic arse that it has forbidden the very type of photography that it so eagerly celebrates in pompous museum exhibitions. Not only will there never be another HCB in France, under current rules, but the future generations of France will not have a photographic memory of their past, unless selfies in front of Arc de Triomphe count.
Starting off with a Brownie, then a 3×4 view camera, he then migrated to a 35mm Leica camera, which he referred to his notebook, and was the least obtrusive of options available to him, to sneak up to opportunities.
He used one camera, one film, 3 lenses, one more than the others, one speed and a small range of apertures. Getting rid of technical considerations allowed him to focus on artistic matter. Would he use a simple phone today? Probably!
Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera.– Henri Cartier-Bresson
It would be hypocritical of me to condemn GAS … Ahem 😉 😉 😉 But, there is something to be said for keeping GAS to one side, a collector’s hobby in itself, and actual photography to another. We can lust about gear at home and focus on intuition in the field. Howzat for compromise?
So, why are there not more Henri Cartier-Bressons out there, now that 1 000 times more photographers are around and 1 000 000 more photographs are made than during HCB’s career years? Because his work combined so many specific aspects that most of us only manage to master in much lower numbers:
Let’s be generous and say that one photographer in 100 is as good at composition as HCB. 1 in 100 as good at tip-toeing into a scene undisturbing. 1 in 100 as sensitive. And so on. Even those kind odds multiply to 10^12 when you combine all the conditions. That’s one in 1000 billion. Should you doubt the combinatory nature of his talents (emphasis mine):
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.– Henri Cartier-Bresson
That’s a lot to muster. On top of this, the intuitive nature of HCB’s work introduced a form of ambiguity in his best images. Something no left brain, rule-based, approach could lead to. And ambiguous because, in the same situation, we would not have done it exactly the same, our intuition being different to his. In short, not only could no one else recreate his images, I strongly doubt that he could have been able to either, on a different day 😉 Those decisive moments were also unique moments.
And that’s where the answer to this section title becomes easy: you can’t. You can’t become the next Cartier-Bresson. But you can harness his approach, recreate his process on the topics that are of interest to you, following situations and event that are meaningful to you, and letting your intuition reach climaxes of clarity that cause your finger to trigger the shutter. Be your own genius.
Let me leave you with a final quote explaining why it might be worth trying (translated from French, so maybe not exactly canon in the wording):
To photograph is to hold one’s breath when all our faculties converge to capture fleeting reality; this is when making of an image is a great intellectual and physical joy.– Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Just do it! 😉
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