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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Without a doubt, this is one of your finest articles to date Pascal. Really enjoyed this.
Thank you David! Coming from a successful artist, that means a lot 🙂
Thanks, Dallas 🙂
Thanks. Now I feel completely inadequate. Little wonder that I don’t like sharing my photos with other people!
Well I can cling to this one – “No rules of thirds, no spiral whatever, no golden fib. Importantly, no rules”. Many long years ago, I found a book on “Composition”. I was just a teenager at the time, starting to take my photography a little more seriously, and I swooped on the book. It wasn’t in my nature to live by rules, so the flirtation was brief – although I still own the book.
Not to keen on the idea of “no cropping”. Frankly I think it’s nuts. But then who am I to argue with a guy like Cartier-Bresson? Well we won’t argue – he’s dead, and I hate arguments!
Cropping. I find more reasons for cropping these days. My “poster boy” for doing it is my series of photos of my orchids. Edging closer all the while, never quite satisfied with the result. Till one day I found it. I’d already taken it. It was hidden – concealed – camouflaged from view, by others in the same frame. And as soon as I finished fooling around with cropping, I found I had it. A shot of one of my orchids that I absolutely treasure. My taste of course – probably not everyone else’s, but I’ve never particularly cared about that, either. I’m the only person in the room, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to deciding which photos will end up in my albums.
Anyway, Pascal, you yourself pointed me in that direction ages ago. When you spat the dummy on “why always 6×4? – and why are they always horizontal?” Brilliant! I still have one reason – they fit better, in my albums. However, from a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s nuts. As you so rightly said.
Which leaves me intrigued. Cartier-Bresson would never have had the options we can get these days, if it matters so much. He couldn’t just punch a few buttons and dial up whatever format he wanted. His cameras dictated the format, and all he could choose was horizontal vs vertical. Cropping on the cutting room floor would become inevitable under those conditions. We now can (depending of course which cameras we shoot with). And the cropping dilemma (assuming we have a 100% hit rate in cam) transfers off the camera, onto the printer. It never runs away completely – not even if you print on paper rolls instead of sheets.
It’s all a bit over-whelming, isn’t it? An excuse to move over – to give up altogether – or wait a little longer and leave it all to the AI that’s starting to flood the world.
But I don’t think C-B would approve of that.
So I’m simply going to declare my hand – I refuse to give up, till the fat lady sings!
And in the meantime, I couldn’t find this thought amongst all the others catalogued in your post. In my case, this was a gift – a very precious gift – that I received from the tribal elders of the indigenous people at Kakadu, in Australia’s Northern Territory.
It’s so basic to the whole process of photography. And yet I see so little comment on it.
Indigenous Australians survived quite happily in this continent for roughly a hundred thousand years, before Europeans invaded the place – dumping surplus convicts on the beach at Botany Bay, and a garrison of drunken redcoat soldiers, charged with controlling the convicts.
And funnily enough, they curated this harsh continent with a skill which has been displaced by a tribe of foreigners who had no understanding of the environment when they decided to take over. They had to – their own survival depended on the survival of the flora and fauna this country offered them.
A side issue was how to exploit it – given that you’d hardly do all the work and not expect something of a reward – like food, for example!
And basic to this was improving how they used their eyesight. How to see. What they did was amazing. It was all explained to me when I went to Kakadu. I’ve no idea how much of their explanation extends and applies to the other thousand or so tribes who occupied the country, so I won’t go into the detail of it. But they worked on it for tens of thousands of years, till they could see things you and I and all the other non-aboriginals in the world would NEVER have noticed, in this extraordinary landscape. Put quite simply, their peripheral vision was improved to the point where they could see just as clearly within an angle range of approximately 170 degrees, when europeans (for example) can generally only “see” what is directly in front of them.
When I took this knowledge away and started fooling around with it, trying to see how far I could get, applying it to my own eyesight, I was amazed by what it revealed to me, about things I could now “see” in the world around me.
Maybe C-B had that too. Who knows? Anyway it’s too late to ask. Certainly he “saw” things few other photographers (“none”?) of his generation captured on film.
Hi Jean Pierre,
Worry not, we all feel inadequate when viewing HCB’s photographs 😉
I too believe in cropping, particularly in a digital world, where there are no borders to authenticate “SOOC” status. HCB wanted to be sure noone was cropping his images without permission, so he usually preferred to deliver photographs with the borders in. But he also liked to get it right in camera, and there’s a lot to be said for that in street photography. Macro is a completely different discipline, obviously 🙂
Interesting idea about peripheral vision. I have no idea about the physiology side, obviously, but it’s certain that using a rangefinder (as HCB did when he ditched his other cameras in favour of the Leica) is done exactly for that reason : all the things you can see in the finder outside the frame lines inform you on what is happening and about to happen outside the frame. It is a peripheral vision of sorts, and the main (only?) justification for rangerfinders in the age of EVFs.
OK, I’ve often thought that one of the articles I had just finished was very good, sometimes excellent, bordering on genius. Today’s post stands head and shoulders above all others regardless of topic and content. Very, very well done. Thank you Pascal for the time and careful, insightful thought put into this particular post. We’ll done!
Thank you very much for such kind words, Michael. They go straight to my heart. I will try to replicate this for other masters of the craft in the future. All the best.
thanks for a great article!
Knowing (almost) less than nothing about HCB, I can only agree with previous comments.
But I’d like to add,
that I feel that you’ve described the art of photography as an exercise in Taoism
( – although that is not exercising…).
As (also) good hunters and marksmen say, you don’t squeeze the trigger, you allow yourself to get ready and let the shot go off.
As in your essential first quote!
( > “… It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson )
Thank you Kristian 🙂
HCB seemed very interested in Buddhism and the phrasing of his quotes does reflect that 🙂
Well, to select another phrasing, “become children again” is found in Christian as well as in other religious texts – as in Tao Te Ching.
And children do just that – until some misguided grown-up interferes…
And yes, when a child is concentrated on something, its whole body is somehow not there, rather it is wholly on the point of concentration.
Just as with a cat.
And rarely with a grown-up…
Ah, well, school is the first destroyer of that. Then comes work and let’s not forget the precious contribution to the wellbeing of manking provided by that kind mr zuckerberg.
But meditation is here to bring us back the focus or our early years, it’s not all doom and gloom 🙂
but understanding parents’ influence can, I believe, inoculate against this effect of school.
I think it is about providing occasions for experience and showing where knowledge is to be found and letting the child find its own way to “how-to”, rather than teach methods.
– sorry, a bit vague.
And with such experience from home I believe school will have much less of that effect – but, alas, “do”, “don’t”, “pfui” etc. are all too common.
[ And how many golf, tennis, etc. instructors make the same mistake by “teaching” rather than showing…
( Possibly because pupils stay longer and income so gets better – that was naughty!)
Not to speak of “rule of thirds” – aaargh!
Sorry about that. ]
emoji-speak being a strange lingua to me, that contrast between eyes and mouth sadly eludes me.
Oh sorry. It was just a laughing emoji, because your comment made me laugh 🙂
Thanks, Pascal, for the clarification!
( That face looked to me as a mix of utter consternation and hilarity…)
Glad you enjoyed my rambling!
Dear Pascal, next time we talk/meet, I shall tell you without fail “Henri C-B, sors de ce corps !!”
Brilliant post, pictures are absolutely awesome, even better than usual (yes, you did it!!).
Thank you, Pascal 😉 Cheers
What a post, Pascal! Wonderfully written and impeccably “garnished” with your lovely images. Yes, HCB was a kind of photographic genius who found a style that suited the era, something that we’d all love to achieve. But to me, the most important achievement for any photographer is to find their own style and work to hone it to perfection. Forget about the rules of composition and camera settings….just let the creativity flow! And, as I strongly believe, less is more when it comes to equipment. Too many lenses, camera backs, and various bits & pieces can only weigh you down, and slow you down when you’re shooting. I really enjoyed all the HCB quotes, too.
Thank you so much Nancee 🙂 It’s significant, and amusing, that manufacturers and their servant media push us towards more gear and that accomplished artists like you do the opposite 😉
I’ll try to get other similar posts out for other masters. Have a great day.
Maybe too much overthinking in the article my guess is that Cartier-Bresson went out and took photographs and was pretty much in sync with his immediate environment
Hi Imants, I’m absolutely certain HCB did exactly what you said. He just walked out and took photographs. But he didn’t get good at it by accident. His choice of subjects was inspired by his personal interests (and he had very strong political and social views) and his style was honed over years of formal education and feedback (working with Magnum colleagues, and frinds such as Kertész, Strand …) None of this happens “just because he’s a genius”. He built everything brick by brick, just like any world class sprinter, composer, mathematician …
I don’t agree with that premise his greatest asset was his ability to take a photograph he just knew what worked and what didn’t. There was nothing to build he just used the bricks because they were there.
OK. How do you think he knew? Just spontaneously? I’m not saying it’s not true. It’s not impossible. It’s just extraordinarily rare. Every research about high-performance shows that initial talent is a tiny factor compared to diligent practise. That said, I never met him and can’t certify he practised anything 😉 But I’d much rather pass on the message that anyone can become really good through practise than the idea that some people are born geniuses, and that others aren’t and can’t do anything about it! That’s both depressing and untrue. Cheers
It”s like a football player, some have an innate ability to spot a opportunity that others never see. It’s not a learning thing just who they are.
Too many photographers these days, confuse a camera’s performance with photography they are both very different things. Henri used a simple camera and knew light what is the most important aspect, he never worried about sharpness, static non-blurred images, auto this and face detection etc …….shot in simple monochrome and was able to reproduce what he thought and what he saw at the same time.
Practice will make you a very good photographer who can consistently produce great results but it’s not going make you brilliant, sure you might be lucky and get that one image that just sings. Henri only produced some brilliant photos over his lifetime, but in his case probably more than most of us ever will
There is a lot of hype over the artists, photographers, poets, and writers of his era some is warranted some is not, it was an era where they just did things, it wasn’t special but it was just important to be part of it.
These days it’s more about the person than the actual work itself, but that’s how things have changed and that’s what we have to accept. Personalities and camera gear plus a drive to network yourself.
I agree. Camera performance is worse than a crutch today, it’s a dangerous illusion.
As for HCB, maybe he was a genius to begin with. I just know he was a wealthy kid surrounded with artists, and he wrote “your first 10 000 photographs are your worst”. So, talended or not, he saw value in practising 😉