One of the greatest photographers of his time, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a shy Frenchman who elevated “snap shooting” to the level of a refined and disciplined art. His ability to catch “the decisive moment,” his precise eye for design, his self-effacing methods of work, and his literate comments about the theory and practice of photography made him a legendary figure among contemporary photojournalists. In the practical world of picture marketing, Cartier-Bresson left his imprint as well: he was one of the founders and a former president of Magnum, a cooperative picture agency of New York and Paris (look at his Magnum portfolio here or his own website here).
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908, in Chanteloupe, France, of prosperous middle-class parents. He owned a Box Brownie as a boy, using it for taking holiday snapshots, and later experimented with a 3 X 4 view camera. But he was also interested in painting and studied for two years in a Paris studio. This early training in art helped develop the subtle and sensitive eye for composition, which was one of his greatest assets as a photographer.
In 1931, at the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson spent a year as a hunter in the West African bush. Catching a case of backwater fever, he returned to France to convalesce. It was at this time, in Marseille, that he first truly discovered photography. He obtained a Leica and began snapping a few pictures with it. It was a pivotal experience. A new world, a new kind of seeing, spontaneous and unpredictable, opened up to him through the narrow rectangle of the 35 mm viewfinder. His imagination caught fire. He recalls how he excitedly “prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life, to preserve life in the act of living.”
Thus began one of the most fruitful collaborations between man and machine in the history of photography. He remained devoted to the 35 mm camera throughout his career. The speed, mobility, the large number of exposures per loading, and, above all, the unobtrusiveness of the little camera perfectly fitted his shy, quicksilver personality. Before long he was handling its controls as automatically as an expert racing driver shifts gears. The camera itself, in his own famous phrase, became an “extension of the eye”.
When World War II erupted, Cartier-Bresson served briefly in the French Army and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of France. After two unsuccessful tries, he escaped from the camp where he was held as a prisoner of war, and worked with the underground until the war’s end.
Resuming his interrupted career as a photojournalist, he helped form the Magnum picture agency in 1947. Assignments for major magazines would take him on global travels, across Europe and the United States, to India, Russia and China. Many books of Cartier-Bresson photographs were published in the 50’s and 60’s, the most famous being ‘The Decisive Moment’ (1952). A major milestone in his career was a massive, 400-print retrospective exhibition, which toured the United States in 1960.
As a journalist, Henri Cattier Bresson felt an intense need to communicate what he thought and felt about what he saw, and while his pictures often were subtle they were rarely obscure. He had a high respect for the discipline of press photography, of having to tell a story crisply in one striking picture. His journalistic grappling with the realities of men and events, his sense of news and history, and his belief in the social role of photography all helped keep his work memorable.
He has said that a sense of human dignity is an essential quality for any photojournalist, and feels that no picture, regardless of how brilliant from a visual or technical standpoint, can be successful unless it grows from love and comprehension of people and an awareness of ‘man facing his fate.” Many of his portraits of William Faulkner and other notables have become definitive, catching as they do, with relaxed and casual brilliance, the essence of personality.
His first book contained an often-quoted paragraph that sums up his approach to photography and has become something of a creed for candid, available light photojournalists everywhere. The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson tersely defined it, is ‘the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”
Some critics accused him of being nothing more than a snap-shooter. It is true that the “decisive moment’ approach, in less disciplined hands, can degenerate into haphazard, unselective snap shooting. But the best of Cartier-Bresson’s works, with their uncanny sense of timing, rigorous organization, and deep insights into human emotion and character, could never have been caught by luck alone, unaided by a rare talent. They are snapshots only in the classic sense of “instantaneous exposures ” snapshots elevated to the level of art.
All his great pictures were taken with the kind of equipment owned by many amateur photographers: 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with a normal 5Omm lens or occasionally a telephoto for landscapes.
[biog edited from Photo-seminars.com]
You just have to live, and life will give you pictures.
We seldom take great pictures. You have to milk the cow a lot and get lots of milk to make a little piece of cheese.
Of all forms of expression, photography is the only one which seizes the instant in its flight.
I find that you have to blend in like a fish in water, you have to forget yourself, you have to take your time, that’s what I reproach our era for not doing. Drawing is slow, it is a meditation, but you have to know how to go slow in order to go quickly, slowness can mean splendor.
A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye – these we should all have.
I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.
I’m not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you want get it. First you must lose your self. Then it happens.
Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify. The question is, do we always cut out what we should? While we’re working, we must be conscious of what we’re doing. Sometimes we have the feeling that we’ve taken a great photo, and yet we continue to unfold. We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.
Photography is nothing — it’s life that interests me.
One has to tiptoe lightly and steal up to one’s quarry; you don’t swish the water when you are fishing.
The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.
It seems dangerous to be a portrait artist who does commissions for clients because everyone wants to be flattered, so they pose in such a way that there’s nothing left of truth.
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.
Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important.
Photography appears to be an easy activity; in fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is in the instrument.
I went to Marseille. A small allowance enabled me to get along, and I worked with enjoyment. I had just discovered the Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.
To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.
The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks! (circa 1930’s)
What is photojournalism? Occasionally, a very unique photo, in which form is precise and rich enough and content has enough resonance, is sufficient in itself. But that’s rarely the case. The elements of a subject that speak to us are often scattered and can’t be captured in one photo; we don’t have the right to force them together, and to stage them would be cheating…which brings us to the need for photojournalism.
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.
Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick.
Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.
In a portrait, I’m looking for the silence in somebody.
Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
Actually, I’m not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.
Memory is very important, the memory of each photo taken, flowing at the same speed as the event. During the work, you have to be sure that you haven’t left any holes, that you’ve captured everything, because afterwards it will be too late.
Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.
The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.
Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.
Of course it’s all luck.
There’s a good retrospective of his work on Slate, here.