Iconic Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson Takes You Inside His Creative World: Watch “The Decisive Moment”

The great artists are often the ones who are best at rec­og­niz­ing and exploit­ing the unique char­ac­ter of their medi­um.

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, pho­tog­ra­phy was mired in an inten­tion­al­ly fuzzy Pic­to­ri­al­ism. The pre­vail­ing view was that pho­tog­ra­phy had to imi­tate paint­ing, or it was­n’t “art.” So in the ear­ly 1930s Edward West­on, Ansel Adams and a few oth­ers on the West Coast formed Group f/64 in protest. They embraced their medi­um’s inher­ent strength by plac­ing large for­mat cam­eras on tripods and stop­ping the lens­es way down (all the way to f/64) to cap­ture scenes with a lev­el of detail and clar­i­ty that a painter could only dream of achiev­ing.

Across the Atlantic an even greater rev­o­lu­tion was tak­ing place. With the intro­duc­tion of the 35mm Leica cam­era and fast films, Euro­pean pho­tog­ra­phers in the late 1920s and ear­ly 1930s were begin­ning to explore the medi­um’s aston­ish­ing abil­i­ty to freeze time. Not only could pho­tog­ra­phy ren­der a sta­t­ic scene with more detail than paint­ing, it could iso­late and pre­serve an oth­er­wise tran­si­to­ry moment from the flux of life. No artist seized upon this essen­tial aspect of pho­tog­ra­phy with greater bril­liance and con­sis­ten­cy than the French­man Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son.

“In pho­tog­ra­phy,” wrote Carti­er-Bres­son, “there is a new kind of plas­tic­i­ty, the prod­uct of instan­ta­neous lines made by move­ments of the sub­ject. We work in uni­son with move­ment as though it were a pre­sen­ti­ment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside move­ment there is one moment at which the ele­ments in motion are in bal­ance. Pho­tog­ra­phy must seize upon this moment and hold immo­bile the equi­lib­ri­um of it.”

Carti­er-Bres­son would often say that his great­est joy was geom­e­try. When he was 20 years old he stud­ied paint­ing under the cubist André Lhote, who adopt­ed for his school the mot­to of Pla­to’s Acad­e­my: “Let no one igno­rant of geom­e­try enter.” Carti­er-Bres­son took an ear­ly inter­est in math­e­mat­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed painters. “He loved Pao­lo Uccel­lo and Piero del­la Francesca because they were the painters of divine pro­por­tions,” writes Pierre Assouline in his book, Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son: A Biog­ra­phy. “Carti­er-Bres­son was so immersed in their works that his mind filled with pro­trac­tors and plumb lines. Like them, he dreamed of diag­o­nals and pro­por­tions, and became obsessed with the mys­tique of mea­sure­ments, as if the world was sim­ply the prod­uct of numer­i­cal com­bi­na­tions.”

At the same time the young artist fell under the sway of a teacher whose approach was decid­ed­ly less ratio­nal. While still in his teens, Carti­er-Bres­son began sit­ting in on André Bre­ton’s leg­endary Sur­re­al­ist gath­er­ings at the Café de la Place Blanche. He had lit­tle regard for Sur­re­al­ist paint­ing, but was intox­i­cat­ed with the Sur­re­al­ist phi­los­o­phy of life: the empha­sis on chance and intu­ition, the role of spon­ta­neous expres­sion, the all-encom­pass­ing atti­tude of revolt. It made a pro­found impres­sion. In  Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son: The Ear­ly Work, Peter Galas­si describes the Sur­re­al­ist approach to life in a way that also neat­ly cap­tures Carti­er-Bres­son’s even­tu­al modus operan­di as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er: “Alone, the Sur­re­al­ist wan­ders the streets with­out des­ti­na­tion but with a pre­med­i­tat­ed alert­ness for the unex­pect­ed detail that will release a mar­velous and com­pelling real­i­ty just beneath the banal sur­face of ordi­nary exis­tence.”

The geo­met­ric for­mal­ism of Renais­sance paint­ing and the serendip­i­ty of Sur­re­al­ism were two key influ­ences on Carti­er-Bres­son’s pho­tog­ra­phy. A third came as an epiphany when he stum­bled upon a repro­duc­tion of Mar­tin Munkác­si’s “Three Boys at Lake Tan­ganyi­ka.” The pic­ture showed a group of African boys frol­ick­ing in the water. If the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had pressed the shut­ter a mil­lisec­ond ear­li­er or lat­er, the beau­ti­ful­ly bal­anced, inter­lock­ing com­po­si­tion would not have exist­ed. “I sud­den­ly under­stood that pho­tog­ra­phy can fix eter­ni­ty in a moment,” Carti­er-Bres­son lat­er said. He gave up paint­ing and bought his first Leica.

Over the next half cen­tu­ry Carti­er-Bres­son would trav­el the world with a Leica in one hand, the strap twist­ed around his wrist, ready to raise it to his eye and fix eter­ni­ty at any moment. Inward­ly he held onto the spir­it of Sur­re­al­ism while out­ward­ly call­ing him­self a pho­to­jour­nal­ist. As a pho­to­jour­nal­ist he wit­nessed some of the biggest events of the 20th cen­tu­ry. He was with Gand­hi a few min­utes before he was assas­si­nat­ed in 1948. He was in Chi­na when the com­mu­nists took over in 1949. “He was the Tol­stoy of pho­tog­ra­phy,” said Richard Ave­don short­ly after Carti­er-Bres­son’s death in 2004 at the age of 95. “With pro­found human­i­ty, he was the wit­ness of the 20th Cen­tu­ry.”

“To take pho­tographs,” Carti­er-Bres­son once said, “is to hold one’s breath when all fac­ul­ties con­verge in the face of flee­ing real­i­ty. It is at that moment that mas­ter­ing an image becomes a great phys­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al joy.”

Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son: The Deci­sive Moment (above) is an 18-minute film pro­duced in 1973 by Scholas­tic Mag­a­zines, Inc. and the Inter­na­tion­al Cen­ter of Pho­tog­ra­phy. It fea­tures a selec­tion of Carti­er-Bres­son’s icon­ic pho­tographs, along with rare com­men­tary by the pho­tog­ra­ph­er him­self.

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Comments (6)
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  • Larry D. says:

    Thanks for that superb look at the works of a gift­ed life.

    It reawak­ened and encap­su­lat­ed my own feel­ings about the pho­to­graph­ic medi­um which had lain dor­mant for forty years.

  • Neha says:

    Well-researched AND live­ly writ­ing. Loved this. Thank you!

  • Mary W. says:

    Many may not know that Hen­ri Carti­er Bres­son was an anar­chist. In the true sense of the phi­los­o­phy, he believed that, if the cit­i­zens of this world could care for one anoth­er, we would not need gov­ern­ments. Now that there are so many orga­nized gov­ern­ment struc­tures, it is impos­si­ble to live the phi­los­o­phy, but the phi­los­o­phy remains. Thank you, HCB!

  • Art-Lover says:

    Thanks for the post! Hen­ri Carti­er Bres­son’s pho­togra­phies are amaz­ing… I found some beau­ti­ful pic­tures rep­re­sent­ing Carti­er Bres­son’s “Deci­sive Moment” in Art Days, here is the link! http://www.art-days.com/henri-cartier-bresson-decisive-moment/ Enjoy!

  • WJJ says:

    C’est for­mi­da­ble de pou­voir enten­dre aujour­d’hui HCB lui-même com­menter ses images clas­siques. Thanks for mak­ing this avail­able.

  • Tony Whelan says:

    Sim­ple and superb.


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