About Henri Cartier-Bresson — street photography owes him a debt. Cartier-Bresson didn’t invent street photography, but his “decisive moment” gave it life. Funny thing, his heart was never 100% into it.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Cartier-Bresson Style/The Decisive Moment
By David Stone
Cartier-Bresson caught my attention. He got in photography what I wanted with poetry. He caught the immediate true moment that makes art fully alive.
It’s harder than it seems, because most of time, we live in the past. We stick with our narratives, and we see our lives in the rear view mirror.
The decisive moment, for which he’s best known, is hard to define. One reason is, Cartier-Bresson actually never said it.
But it’s a point when all things come together in unity. The ideal image caught on film or, nowadays, digital device.
Cartier-Bresson got there gradually, starting out with music and painting. Photography drew him away from those flirtations, because it grabbed reality and held it.
Following in the accidental footsteps of Eugene Atget (See Atget, Paris), Cartier-Bresson’s realistic pictures were like nothing before.
The “decisive moment” set a standard for street photographers as Atget’s pictures of a disappearing Paris did for urban landscapes.
Cartier-Bresson didn’t believe in what he considered gimmicks, i.e., dark room tricks to “bring an image out.” Either he got it at the instant his shutter clicked, or it just wasn’t worth saving.
About Becoming Henri Cartier-Bresson
Born in 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France, Cartier-Bresson was drawn to artistic expression all his life. He started with music but gave that up as well as painting before settling on photography.
As a child, he owned a Box Brownie camera, but he didn’t consider making pictures a career until he saw Martin Munkacsi’s Three Boys At Lake Tanganyika.
The picture, vibrant and vital without sacrificing composition, convinced him that pictures do more than record events. They could also capture an apex of experience with all the vitality life had to offer.
The rest is history, Cartier-Bresson’s unique style inspires and informs the values of street photographers more than a hundred years after his birth.
His work led him to start Magnum Photography with Robert Capa and others. The cooperative grew to shoot a profound collection of documentary photography in a world hurtling into modern times.
About Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Photographic Imprint
Cartier-Bresson edged close to answering the question many artists find impossible: What makes one picture art and another just a passing image?
For him, it was that moment when all the pictorial elements came together in an expression that was more and deeper than the combined parts. Give him credit for being opinionated.
Others either didn’t try to explain it or came up with less.
Cartier-Bresson took thousands of pictures never seen by anyone else, a fact true with most professional photographers. The artist’s eye knows if his or her lens actually captured the desired image.
I don’t know a professional photographer who doesn’t take hundreds of images for every one that gets saved.
Street Photography Techniques That Worked
Cartier-Bresson’s tactics in nailing his decisive moments are legendary.
First, he used a Leica camera almost exclusively because it was so small he could use it and not be noticed by his subjects. The instant the subject of his picture became aware, the art left like air from a balloon.
He went even farther, using black tape and paint to cover the lighter exterior surfaces of his Leicas to make them less visible.
But the technique that should get more exposure and was probably most effective in making his images possible was one he learned before turning to photography as a career.
Escaping to the Ivory Coast after a personal crisis in 1931, Cartier-Bresson earned a living shooting game and selling it. He later used hunting techniques in stalking people to shoot with his camera. He used camouflage and misdirection.
Cartier-Bresson shot with Leica’s almost exclusively. He valued them for their small size and their versatility. Since he did not believe in cropping his photos, this camera’s versatility in helping him catch the one and only instant he wanted was irresistible.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Personal Decisive Moment
In 1947, Henri Cartier-Bresson became one of the founding photographers in Robert Capa’s collective Magnum Photos. The aim of this cooperative was to “feel the pulse” of the times and to record it as permanent visual records.
Each member had dedicated photo assignments, and Cartier-Bresson’s were India and China, a part of the world convulsing after World War II.
Among other things, he photographed the last imperial eunuchs in China before communism swept tradition aside. He arrived in India just in time to record the funeral of the assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.
Later, he traveled to photograph in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and the Soviet Union as it emerged as a melting pot of power.
After twenty years of photography that stands as a crucial record of the most dynamic period in history, he left Magnum as a principle in 1966, when he was 58.
He then concentrated on moments less decisive — landscapes and portraits.
Return to Painting
Cartier-Bresson lived to be 95, but he rarely took pictures in the last thirty years of his life. Turning his back on his legacy, he put his camera away in a safe.
Commenting in as complete a reversal as any artist has ever made, he said that photography, for all his contributions, was just a substitute for painting, a way of making sketches.
Completing his personal revolution, he also divorced his first wife, Elie, and marrying another photographer, Martine Franck, with whom he had his only child, Melanie, at age 62.
Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 as the world of photography underwent a revolution, moving from film to digital picture taking.
You can’t help but wonder what he’d have made of the once unimaginable versatility of digital picture taking and boundless manipulation.
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