Henri Cartier-Bresson

Like many photographers I admire and revere Henri Cartier-Bresson. My father introduced me to his work 50+ years ago. I have quite a few books of his photographs.

He was quite shy and protected his anonymity closely. He gave few interviews. Recently however I came across a small book of conversations and interviews he gave. I read the whole book in an afternoon and thought it shed quite a lot of light on him as a man. So immediately I decided to go back and reread, this time taking notes to see what I could distill from the texts. These conversations took place over many years but it is clear that HCB did not change his philosophy much if at all. Here then are my notes.

HCB is constantly immersed in life. For him the point of photography seemed to end when he pressed the shutter. He says that it’s looking that is important not photography. The thing that moves me, excites me is looking at life. I live from day to day. For me only one thing counts – it is the instant and the eternity. Everything I have to say is in my photos. He says: I don’t think about photography I think about life, about form, what interests me , what shocks me. And: My photographs are there. I have nothing to say. The picture projects the photographer’s personality. Photography is a way of living more intensively. Intensity of life is important.

For him the most important subject is man and his life – so brief, so frail, so threatened. And yet there is something revolting about photographing people – requires sensitivity – respect it if people don’t want to be photographed.

His views on the process of taking a picture are probably well recognised. He felt that the difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is millimeters. In a good picture there is nothing you can crop. Everything is in its place. Composition, geometry, organization and the greatest joy for me is geometry which means structure. Perhaps less well accepted today is his view that it’s form that is primary, not light. He sees the camera as a visual extension of the eye. If my visual appetite isn’t stimulated I don’t lift the camera to my eye. He stated that he photographed instinctively, didn’t shoot with a purpose but with intuition. Permanent tension is the only way to grip reality. ‘To capture life itself’. Evoke not document. Yet he states that photography is not essential to me. It is a way of questioning the world and questioning yourself but photography is not work. He describes it as being fraught with tension.

He noted that photography was his way of keeping a diary; The camera is a sketchbook, nothing more. He added: My contact sheets are my memory, my intimate diary.A contact sheet shows how a photographer thinks – tiny changes until the picture is right.

He denies much of the creativity we seek today, our Holy Grail. I do not believe in inspiration – you have to work, work. I never think, I act, I shoot. Seize the objective chance. And he added that photography does not want to say anything. You have to look and learning to look requires an enormous amount of time. He maintained you either have a gift or you don’t.

This strikes me as a fascinating juxtaposition of the clinical and the creative, joined in the instant of taking the picture. He was adamant that the picture should stand alone. He said I use no flash – it has to be be authentic. He didn’t use a light meter or filters – I know the light. He claimed never to pose a subject and only to press the shutter when the character surged forth. He was not interested in creating an effect. He was just a witness. Photography is made here and now. You have no right to manipulate or cheat. A photograph can only be corrected by making the next one if reality allows it

He had a cultured upbringing. Literature and paintings led to photography. He always maintained that you must nourish your mind with music, art, painting. You need a desire to enrich your mind and to live.

He talks a little about his technical approach. He typically shot at 1/100th and F8-F11; distance set to 10′ / 3m. And on the much debated topic of street photography he comments: Street photography is a joy. The portrait is the most difficult. Most interviews eventually ask about the decisive moment. He explains consistently that The Decisive Moment – Images à la sauvette is a quote from Cardinal de Retz – used by his publisher – not his term. He simply used it as an inscription in the French edition of his book and it was then used as the title. It never went away.

He also, in an echo of today, bemoans absurd laws such as having to ask permission to take a photograph. It is becoming very difficult to take pictures, he says. He also claims to have no interest in changing the equipment he uses. I have had the same camera for years – I am a very bad customer. I have one camera, one lens. It’s intensity that counts (economy of means in order to get the maximum). He famously used his Leica and a 50mm lens although he mentions other lenses too at times. What was photography to him? Photography is not propaganda it is a way of shouting how you feel. Cynicism kills everything. Photography is a means of visual expression but is it an art? What is an artist? Do not try to prove anything at all.

It is clear as the later interviews reveal that he was not comfortable with the way the world was heading. As early as 1974 he refers to a world that is heading toward nothingness.

By 1979 he talks of A world of greater and greater tensions, where the individual counts less and less. To me it seems a suicidal world. There are other possible worlds but how do we turn around? This is an absurd world.

In 1986 he seems almost disenchanted with photography – he had returned to drawing as his creative outlet. The idolization of photography, the acceleration in speed seem to me like a headlong rush that creates more and more disparities, he states.

In 1989 he is even more clear: For me, the great changes go back to 1955….. It is the victory of consumer society and all the consequences of this exponential world, where the planet is plundered. …. this technological world, for me, is a doomed world, doomed by itself; it is a suicidal world.
At the end HCB describes and identifies himself as a libertarian, [I am against all forms of power] yet he was once a communist. He was also deeply impacted by his 3 years as a PoW. He is consistent in his views on religion too: I never had faith. God is an invention of Man. The closest he came to a belief system was Buddhism. At one point he says The only real answer is death (1979). He died on August 3rd 2004, just short of his 96th birthday.

What do I think having completed my exercise in note taking? He loved being private, almost anonymous and felt it added to his ability to blend in when making photos. Perhaps too he felt out of touch with the way the world was changing and in some ways his views seem remarkably prescient. What I wonder would he have made of social media. For him the act of taking the photograph was the end point. He says he didn’t see some of his work for 3 years when he was travelling and sending film back to the office. Who today could live with that? He was often asked how many good images he expected from a roll of film or per day. He had no answer. He simply related back to the quality of what he saw. To make a ‘keeper’ he had to find the right subject matter. He sometimes carried 2 cameras each loaded with 36 exposure rolls of film so he could shoot 72 frames without worrying about changing. How many RAW frames can you get on a 128GB card?

How would he view the street photography of today? He praised form over light. What would he have made of the tsunami of chiaroscuro images that we see? He didn’t reject colour but he felt black and white gave him more control. Colour film was perhaps insufficiently well advanced to meet his requirements for faithful rendition. How many photographers today truly claim that they have nothing to say, the photos speak alone.

He rejected any form of manipulation – no cropping, and for the digital age no composites or doctored photos – perhaps he allowed his printers some dodging and burning but essentially he was the ultimate perfectionist. Would he have changed his views as technology advanced? I recall a wonderful promotional video from Canon when somebody gave Don McCullin a digital camera for the first time. He was almost afraid of it. Yet within a very short time he seemed completely at ease with it and loved what it could do for him. Would HCB have felt the same?

He lists in one interview his favourite composers, authors and painters. It is clear he felt the world was losing an appreciation of the cultural grounding he valued. Did this contribute to his wonderful images or was he as he suggested simply gifted and worked hard to make the most of his gift. He was scathing about photography schools! His passion was to capture life itself and that he did. He was a complex character and I struggle to think of anybody similar in contemporary photography. On one thing he was quite right for sure: This is an absurd world.

I post one image with each blog entry and it seems fair that this one should be black and white and uncropped. So here it is, from Lahore to pay some small homage to HCB’s love of the East.

Badshahi Mosque rework

18 thoughts on “Henri Cartier-Bresson

  1. I’ve read this a few times, and smiled a few times to discover comments from him that match convictions I’ve developed on my own. My personal favorite from among the many bits of advice he offered is this: “You just have to live, and life will give you pictures.”

    • Taken with a very simple point and shoot camera that I could carry on business trips. It was a day to remember having private tours of such wonderful places and the Badshahi Mosque is simply sublime.

  2. This is a really superb distillation of your reading and notes on HC-B. I am so grateful you posted it. Thank you so much. I agree with so much (though as a perpetual student, I personally rate studying a subject very highly).

    • Many thanks Hilary. It was an impulse piece really to enlighten me so I am pleased others have enjoyed it. I hope you have a healthy and happy Christmas. These are such trying times.

  3. Andrew, thank you for a great post on what makes a great man ‘tick’. You first section on living for the moment and not the photograph (I may have tweeted the message’ a Little here) had me nodding my head. I caught myself not looking but photographing, and have managed to stop. But I see so many people living through their camera, or rather smart phone at events and activities. Thanks again for reminding me.

    • It did throw up a few moments of recognition for me too, Paul. The biggest challenge for me is the idea that seeing the final print didn’t really matter. His preoccupation was the taking of the photograph not what happened to it afterwards. But he would go through his contact sheets looking for the exact moment that he wanted. We have cameras now that will shoot at 30fps but he did this one shot at a time using a rangefinder. Remarkable sense of vision. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Your gorgeous photo of Lahore seems a perfect response to your reading. There is a great deal in your notes to process, for me. Like you, I share his dismay over the direction humans are taking things. Politics, obviously, but really in all things we seem to be in a race to extremes. I feel the same about the purpose of a painting (for me) as a photo (for him) as he does. It is the result of looking, not a statement of any kind. It makes me extremely uncomfortable, the idea that we artists are supposed to be saying something or other.
    I once had an old Minolta I’d bought used, with a simple lens I could screw onto the existing lens for my butterfly shots. I was never happier than when in the field with that camera still mourn it. It finally had so much sand in its workings that it stopped working and I was forced into the digital age. I’m still cranky about that!
    Thank you for sharing your notes on HC-B. This was nourishing to my mind and soul as I ate my breakfast.

    • I’m so pleased you found it interesting Melissa. I share some of his thoughts and concerns. I also go back to film days but although I love the look of film I do appreciate the flexibility of digital. I looked again last night at some of his photos. His post war work is just breathtaking and reflects so much of what he says here.

  5. An enjoyable read. To me he was pragmatic and quite philosophical about life and the world in general. It seems he lived an interesting life as he traveled the world looking for things that caught his attention and what he perceived would make and interesting photo.

    • Yes Yvonne. He loved travel and when he was young he really roughed it for his love of photography. Later he traveled in more style but always with the same purpose. I share a lot of his concerns about the state of the world for sure.

  6. I just wrote a long piece in reply to your fascinating review but lost it to the ether as I tried to post it.
    During the day I will have another attempt.
    Thanks for the post

  7. I was introduced to the works of this man by a woman who conducted a short course on the philosophy of photography. I think she’ll appreciate what you have written.

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