“Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson. This combination of words has almost became a common noun in the world of photography. Cartier-Bresson changed the whole game and transformed photography as an art form. Let’s break down his achievements and see what was so special about his photos, that had conquer the world.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in France in 1908, and started to take interest in photography at the dawn of its development. After experiments with music and painting, he became closer to the Surrealist circles. “The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.” explains art historian Peter Galassi. Fascination with the street life and subconscious notions influenced Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre greatly; he became a pioneer of the street photography. But this is not the only one core of his artistic heritage.
The Decisive Moment
We have already mentioned this phenomena earlier. The concept of the decisive moment was described in his book of the same name in 1952.
“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative…The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Cartier-Bresson was at the roots of candid photography, which excluded any kind of artificial staging, affecting the subject or interrupting the scene. He considered photography as a hunting process, where you have to quietly wait for the prey/the right moment to come. And actually, it was not just a general allusion. In 1931, escaping the heart-broke, Henri Cartier-Bresson decided to explore Africa. In Côte d'Ivoire, he survived by hunting and selling game to the locals. That’s when the parallels between photography and hunting had occurred.
The Decisive Moment is very much based on the luck. But it is also depending on the intuition. Photographer should only take picture when the surroundings escalates to the breaking point. And here goes your moment!
Cartier-Bresson was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, picture agency that was aimed at the integration of photography into the most recent and vivid world events. Widely acknowledged, Magnum Photos turned into a symbol of humanist values and an icon in the coverage of internationally significant events. Cartier-Bresson was responsible for events in china and India, being in the epicenter of revolutions and reformations of the world. “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” - he said.
Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica 35 mm most of the time during his career. He covered all the shiny parts, so it wouldn’t distract the matter of his interest and let him remain unnoticed.
He never used flash, considering it as impolite practice and intervention. He never edited his photos. And, actually, never took interest in developing them. The pictures were developed by his assistants or friends, with no darkroom manipulations or cropping. The only one pictures that mattered to him - those in the viewfinder of his camera at the exact moment of taking a photo. “Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks” said the photographer.
Cartier-Bresson worked solely in black and white, stating that technical innovations were not important, only the photographer’s vision and intuition mattered.
He had a tradition of testing new lenses by photographing ducks in city parks, - a little superstition he allowed himself to have.
What can we say about Henri Cartier-Bresson? He felt the vivid stream of life around him, the persistently changing world; and he made us remember the brightest moments captured with his attentive eye. Candid and honest, his oeuvre serves as an example of ordinary turned into something bigger. He made every little detail count, and we can tell that important things are not only those that meet the eye at once.