If there is one man’s words I will spend the rest of my life trying to feel, they are those of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Yes, I said feel, as from my hours of study I find Cartier-Bresson unique in the world of photographers. Like few others in history, Cartier-Bresson was very upfront and open about sharing everything learned over his many years. The challenge being is how you interpret the information presented. Cartier-Bresson didn’t attempt to be cryptic nor mysterious on what it took to make good images. Cartier-Bresson felt good photographers were simply very good craftsmen. Style was something that developed on its own, not something that could be pursued. For Cartier-Bresson, a great photo was the result of finding a great composition in a location which was missing one element, and the waiting for that one element to appear. The rest was all luck.
There has always been a sense of feeling I get when I perceive his work, read his words, and listen to him speak. It’s not just the word choices he uses, it is the emotional connection I feel when I understand him best. One of his primary secrets to successful images, to paraphrase his own words, is to feel the image and not just “take” it. Cartier-Bresson’s work and his words continue to be one of my greatest inspirations.
Cartier-Bresson approached his photography from a painter’s perspective, though the two media are 180 degrees opposite. Painting is an additive process. The artist begins with a blank canvas, and using color, shape and form applies his brushes deftly until the stark emptiness of a blank canvas becomes filled with the life the painter brings to it. Photography is a subtractive process. The photographer chooses perspective, viewpoint, lens, camera, medium, aperture and shutter speed based upon simplifying the panoramic scene before him. By carful choices in each, a photographer can isolate a subject down to its essence, a passing of time down to the one “decisive moment” as Cartier-Bresson called it. That split second when everything comes together; when magic happens.
Cartier-Bresson was the original master of this technique, capturing the moment of essence in all of his published work. Many credit Cartier-Bresson with being the father of modern photojournalism and street photography. I would be counted as one of them. But not every image Cartier-Bresson shot was a masterpiece. Nobody shoots a masterpiece with every frame. We all as photographers end up with the majority of our work in the cutting bin, be it physical or the electronic trash bin on your desktop.
In the video above, we get to see some of Cartier-Bresson’s actual contact sheets, a rare treat in and of itself. We get to see not only Cartier-Bresson’s image selections, we see his rejects. We see a bit deeper into the soul of the photographer by examining what he shot and what was rejected. What interested him enough to use a few of his thirty-six precious film frames trying to capture what his senses told him was coming, the decisive moment. By observing these failed attempts, the remaining frames on his contact sheets not circled with a red crayon border, we can glean deeper insight into the process Cartier-Bresson used in creating some of his historic imagery. Cartier-Bresson was a stickler for composition. As he explains in his own words, composition is where a photograph begins. Without great respect for composition, there can never result a great photograph.
Capturing these “decisive moments” became the central core of Cartier-Bresson’s process, saying “Photography is simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact.” To paraphrase once again, anticipate when and where something interesting will happen, and be there with your camera. Easier said than done, yet for Cartier-Bresson it became second nature.
Ironically, late in his life, Cartier-Bresson abandoned photography and instead returned to painting and drawing. “For me drawing is…,” Cartier-Bresson says, “the tiniest piece of graffiti has meaning. In a drawing, you know when it’s enough, when to stop.” Director Raphael O’Byrne interviewed Cartier-Bresson in 2001 for his wonderful documentary, called “Just Plain Love.” In the film, presented below in it’s hour and ten minute entirety, Cartier-Bresson talks about his love for photography as well as his creative process. “It’s all the same,” he says “we look, we transcribe.” It’s not a short piece at an hour and ten minutes, and it is in French with English sub-titles. It is time well spent if you aspire to understand and fully appreciate the skills of this great master.