Monday, 27 December 2010

Research: Henri Cartier-Bresson

"If I have seen farther than others,
it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants."
-Isaac Newton-

Where do you start with someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson? Legend in the world of photojournalism, founder member of Magnum, and arguably one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. You could almost call him a...giant of the industry! See, you just thought that was a random quote didn't you?

By the way, for the sake of brevity, I'm going to do what a lot of others seem to do, and refer to Henri Cartier-Bresson as HCB from now on, so don't get confused.

Call me conventional, but I think the best place to start is probably the HCB was born on the 22nd of August 1908, in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne. Although he was born in Chanteloup, his family were wealthy industrialists and merchants, so he actually lived in Paris throughout his childhood. Despite the protestations of his father, and regardless of the security his family's wealth offered, HCB decided he wanted to pursue a career in art. Like a lot of people who went on to become accomplished photographers, his initial forays in to the art world were through painting. His uncle was a painter, so he'd developed a passion for painting at an early age, a passion which continued for the rest of his life, and one he would eventually return to when he retired from professional photography. After leaving standard education he enrolled in an art school and was tutored by the french cubist painter Andre Lhote. Even though he loved painting and clearly had a natural aptitude for it, he began to feel he couldn't express himself properly through this medium, so started to look around for other forms. He'd dabbled in photography for a number of years, but it would take a disastrous affair, and a near fatal trip to the Ivory Coast to shift his focus (no pun intended.) After contracting a tropical disease in Africa, HCB was forced to return to France to convalesce. Whilst recuperating, he came across a photograph by Martin Munkacsi:

Three boys at Lake Tanganyika, By Martin Munkacsi

HCB said: "I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out in to the street."

While we're talking about cameras, I'll mention another great thing about HCB (at least from a research point of view.) His use of equipment. Whereas some of the other photographers I've talked about change equipment seemingly on a whim, flitting between brands like an indecisive kid in a sweet shop. He started with a Leica, he always used a Leica, and if it wasn't for the minor inconvenience of being dead, would still be using a Leica. This is great! It means I don't have to scroll through hundreds of websites, scour dozens of books, and offer the occasional sexual favour to archivist's, just to find out what particular camera he used for a picture. I can actually get on with reading about photography. Unless he was taking a landscape he almost always used a 50mm lens as well...Thank you! So why did HCB like the Leica so much? Unobtrusiveness! As one of the first successful 35mm cameras, they are a lot more inconspicuous than the larger format cameras prevalent at the time, add to this the fact he often covered them with black tape to make them even less obvious and he could snap away in the street with alacrity. Another thing that helped him remain unseen was his refusal to use flash of any kind, he felt you should use the lighting available, or you weren't being respectful to the process.

Blimey, I've been rabbiting on for ages and I haven't even shown you a single HCB picture yet! Do they really expect you to do these things in only 150 words? Ok, lets try and focus a bit.

Brie, By Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1968

I'll get round to his street photography in a minute, but first I wanted to share a landscape shot that I like. Taken in 1968, this picture shows an avenue of plane trees (that's what they're called it's not a spelling mistake), in Chanteloup-Brie. Apart from the fact it's a nice landscape photograph, it's the strangeness of this picture that really appeals to me. Who planted a carefully regimented avenue of trees in an otherwise featureless landscape? Where do they lead?

I'm never quite sure how to talk about composition without seeming like I'm just repeating the same things I've said before, so if I do, I apologise in advance. HCB has composed the picture so that the the road acts as a leading line, naturally drawing the eye towards the trees, before continuing on through the avenue and in to the distance. By placing the foreground in the bottom third of the photograph he's used the empty sky to further enhance the sense of isolation the viewer feels when looking at the trees. Finally, and this could be similar to a Rorschach test and say more about me than I'd like to reveal, but he seems to have positioned his camera so that the foliage forms a heart shape. I'm sure I could extemporise at this point about how this is representative of the love he feels for the place of his birth, and all sorts of other nonsense, but I think he probably just liked the shape they formed.

Derriere La Gare De Saint-Lazare, By Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1932

As it's name suggests, this picture was taken behind the St-Lazare station in Paris. HCB always firmly believed in the idea of the decisive moment. A point at which the perfect picture exists, press the shutter a few seconds either side of this moment and you might still get a good picture, but you'll fail to capture the true essence of the situation. The above photo is a brilliant example of this concept. Whilst on one of his frequent forays around the city, he happened to look through a broken fence at the back of the station, and saw this man making his way across the area. Taking out his trusty Leica, he quickly took a shot and the resulting photo would become one of the most famous and lauded of his career.

HCB was always slightly bemused by the reception this photograph received, as far as he was concerned he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. There was no great thought process involved, he just snapped off a quick shot and it came out well. Having researched the picture, I can understand the frustration he felt when people over analyzed his photos. I've read no end of essays saying that he deliberately composed the photo so that the leaping man could be compared to the poster of the circus acrobat in the background, or that the reflection represents the duality of man. All these people seem to forget however, that HCB himself has said the composition of the picture was dictated by the width of the hole in the fence: "The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason the picture is cut off on the left."

During the 1930's HCB was being heavily influenced by his friends in the emerging surrealist movement, and was primarily concerned with using the camera to represent the concept of motion. I don't know whether it was deliberate, or not, but he's achieved that desire with this picture. It's possible this is all due to the film speed he was using, or the level of ambient light available at the time, but when taking the picture he used a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the subject mid leap, but one that's slow enough to blur his features, therefore retaining a sense of forward momentum. The ISO of the film is also responsible for the graining present on the photograph. I don't think this is detrimental to the picture though, in fact, given the obsession with perfection many people struggle with in modern photography I like the extra level of texture it adds. The other obvious element in the composition is his use of the water to reflect the background and main subject. Whilst I can't claim to read huge meaning in to this, I do think it's a really clever use of the available surroundings to add an extra element of interest to the picture.

In The Old Town. Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, 1966,
By Henri Cartier-Bresson

In a shameless, and extremely tenuous attempt to make this post almost seem relevant, I'll quickly talk about the way HCB presented his pictures. He never staged a photo, like using artificial light, he always felt that a photographer should create as real a representation of the situation as possible. As an extension of this idea, he always refused to crop or modify his pictures in anyway. He very rarely printed his own photos, preferring to let other people handle the day to day tasks of his work. I think this is one of the reasons he felt uncomfortable with the level of fame he achieved. He didn't see photography as a great art form, simply a way to capture his surroundings:

"Photography is nothing, it's life that interests me."
-Henri Cartier-Bresson-

I think this quote is the best way of summing up HCB's approach to photography. Regardless of his talent and his decades in the business, it was the interaction between people that he found so fascinating, the minutiae of everyday life that kept drawing him back in. I think ultimately, this is why he found it relatively easy to walk away from photography, he felt he'd said everything he needed to say, so returned to his first love...painting.


  1. Great research! I really like the way you speak about Bresson.

  2. Thanks. Always nice to get a fresh perspective. :)