Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most famous photographers in history. In fact, we've written about him as a famous photographer before. Cartier-Bresson was the co-founder of Magnum (a photo agency of the day) who brilliantly captured the events and spirit of the 20th century. His life was packed with adventure and excitement, which he translated into the body of work that we all love.
But have you ever wondered what Cartier-Bresson could teach you, to help you reflect on your own work and become a better photographer? I was checking out a book of his images the other day and began wondering what some of these lessons might be. So I’ve put together a list of 7 things that I think we can all draw from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s life and work.
1. Find out where the action is, and get there!
“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of those people who just seem to find themselves in the thick of it. His life would make an awesome film, taking in, as it did, so many of the twists and turns of the 20th century.
Cartier-Bresson was captured by the Nazis during WWII (escaping at the third attempt!); travelled across the United States; gained entry into the Soviet Union just after Stalin’s death; witnessed the collapse of Imperial China; was present for the upheaval of Partition in India (speaking with Gandhi just hours before his assassination) and, needless to say, extensively photographed his native continent of Europe during some pretty tumultuous decades!
I think it’s safe to say most of us won’t be matching that! But the point is that, almost as soon as HCB discovered photography in the 1920’s, he made it his business to explore new places and sniff out big events. I don’t think that he made much distinction between his own personal curiosity, and his curiosity as a photographer.
You know that surge of motivation to shoot that comes when you travel to somewhere new and unfamiliar? Well, I think that HCB’s career affirms how important it is for us photographers to never get ‘stale’, and to follow our naturally curiosity instead of getting stuck in a pattern.
2. Don’t “over-think” composition
“In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson is famous for perfectly arranged compositions that bring together all the elements of a scene into a perfectly balanced image. Yet quite a lot of his pictures were taken really spontaneously.
He often spoke about how he worked on an instinctive, almost ‘subconscious’ level. I think this shows in the way he was able to seize on sudden moments of action, and consistently shape them into organized and balanced pictures.
If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes feel a bit over conscious of guidelines such as the rule of thirds, lead-in lines or the golden mean. I think the way HCB approached his work is a good reminder that these guides are just there to assist your natural eye. Sometimes the less you think the better your photos can be!
3. Be inspired by others
“I must say that it was this photo that lit the fuse and gave me the desire to study photography through the lens of a camera.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Being a decisive sort of chap, who followed his instincts, it was on seeing just one magnificently vibrant image by another photographer that convinced Henri Cartier-Bresson this was the game for him.
In 1931 he came across a picture by Martin Munkacsi (whose work incidentally was also a big influence on Richard Avedon) of three black boys charging with complete abandon into the breaking waves of lake Tanganyika. The shot combines a wonderful ‘joie de vivre’ with a rigorous composition that completely sold HCB on the medium of photography.
I definitely know the feeling of being knocked out by a photograph, and just wanting to try to emulate it in some way. In fact, along with travelling to new places, this is probably the thing that gives me most inspiration. I imagine you’re familiar with this too? It does seem that most photographers seem to pick up on things in each others work, and then take them off in their own unique direction.
4. Get the shot right in-camera
“Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
If you’ve ever read any of Henri Cartier Bresson’s thoughts on his own photography, or watched recorded interviews, you’ll recognize this as one of his big themes!
Sure, with digital photography things have changed a lot. But I still think there’s plenty to learn from HCB’s obsession with the integrity of photographic vision that begins and ends with the press of the shutter release button.
There were actually several reasons why he liked to ensure that what was caught in camera was more or less what was published and exhibited. For a start, he really liked taking pictures! Almost as soon as he had taken a great shot, he was on to the next one. The satisfaction of an awesome capture seemed to fritter out quite quickly for him, and there was certainly no wallowing in his achievement! He wanted to spend as much time actually shooting as possible, and that meant getting things right in camera.
Amazingly, all the dark room work on HCB’s images was entrusted to colleagues that he knew and trusted. As far as he was concerned, the image was the moment that he captured and framed in his viewfinder. Any tweaks thereafter were just tiny finishing touches.
Personally, almost as soon as I’ve taken a shot that I’m proud of my mind turns to how I can make it even better in post-production! I love that whole process of working towards the finished article. But Cartier-Bresson reminds us that the true interest of any photo is carried by the subject matter and the manner in which we have captured it in-camera. Who knows, perhaps in today’s convenient digital world he would have been a Photoshop fan-boy!?
5. Stop talking about your gear for a second!
“Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson
I’m not somebody who dismisses the importance of good equipment. That would be a pretty daft thing to do for any photographer frankly. But I do definitely think that there are times when most of us over-emphasize the technical quality of photos, to the detriment of their overall character and interest. Apart from anything else, it can be tough to really focus on technical and creative matters at the same time.
HCB never made any bones about the fact that the intricacies of photography equipment just didn’t much interest him, “…” In 1932 he discovered the Leica 35mm camera and used it for the remainder of his career, almost always with a 50mm lens. It was simple, discreet and easy to carry, giving him everything he wanted.
So there was never any danger that Cartier-Bresson might take his eye off the ball of what was going on around him. He was always far more absorbed by “life” than “photography”, and that’s why his pictures are so interesting.
Another benefit of working almost exclusively with a 50mm lens (which is the closest to human vision) is that it forced him to move around amongst his subjects, rather than simply tweaking the focal length. In my experience this is almost always a good thing to do, especially for the kind of documentary work HCB did. As his friend and Magnum co-founder, Robert Capa, said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.
6. Choose your moment
“The marvellous mixture of emotion and geometry, together in a single instant.” – Henri Cartier Bresson
The expression, ‘the decisive moment’, first entered the lexicon of photography as the U.S. title of Cartier-Bresson’s book, “Images a la Sauvette”. We all have a rough idea of what is meant by it: that fleeting instant when everything required for a great photo presents itself at the same time.
It’s a really great concept to bear in mind. One of the things I like most about photography is that it can be a very economical form of expression. A lot of what we see, hear and generally take in from the world around us is fluff; we could do without it! But a great photo is just one still image that was taken in a tiny fraction of a second, and hits on something pertinent about the subject.
When I start to get a bit trigger-happy with the shutter release, I remind myself how Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t waste any film by aimlessly snapping innocuous subjects. He made everything in his shots count – from faces, gestures and poses to the overall composition. We can all vouch that’s easier said than done! But Cartier-Bresson did give away one or two really interesting insights into his method:
He often compared his love of shooting, in the hunting sense, with shooting in the photographic sense! The parallels are obvious: waiting patiently for the prey/subject to emerge, lining it up in the sights/viewfinder and timing the shot just at the right moment. I think this comparison shows how HCB never fell asleep with camera in hand. His eyes were always peeled for the next moment of action, emotion or humour that he could “trap in [his] little box”.
Sometimes I look at a Cartier-Bresson picture and think, “There’s no way he could have just spun around, grabbed this shot at the perfect moment and simultaneously composed the whole scene to perfection!” Well, quite often, he didn’t.
What he would do is find a really interesting backdrop for a photograph (like a set without the actors), and take the time to position everything carefully. He would then wait for the subjects to come into place and complete the image. Incidentally, I watched an interview with the wonderful Steve McCurry the other day, where he also spoke about using this method on his shoots.
7. Focus on the subject rather than the photography!
“Photography is nothing – it's life that interests me.” – Henri Cartier Bresson
I think a great deal of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photography can be summed up in the idea of keeping things simple. All he needed was a 35mm Leica, a 50mm lens and a burning curiosity to see the world and capture it in ‘decisive moments’.
Even if your photography necessarily involves a lot more equipment than HCB got by with, I still think there’s something to learn from his approach. As satisfying as it is to use the amazing quality equipment we all have access to today, it is only ever a means to an end. Cartier-Bresson’s attention was 100% consumed by his subject, which allowed him to capture so many fascinating scenes.
In fact, even when it came to the subject and ‘meaning’ of his photos, HCB had a pretty simple approach. I read one of his interviews recently where he was talking about the decisive moment. He spoke about how it was not always necessary to know why you’re taking a picture at the time.
The ‘decisive moment’ occurs when various things come together at the same time, and you just know the photo has to be taken. These shots have a quality about them that doesn’t always have to be defined – they’re just wonderful to look at! It might only become clear to you at a later point exactly what captured your attention about someone’s expression, or a certain grouping of people.