Research notes – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) was a French photographer and painter and a co-founder of the Magnum Agency.

The following notes are on the first edition (1952) of “Images a la sauvette”(1). First some general observations on the layout and format of the book

  • Book presented on portrait perspective.
  • Pictures are presented on every page, sometimes three on a two page spread. There is a combination of both portrait and landscape oriented images.
  • All pictures are black and white
  • The format of presentation is large and there is virtually no blank space between pictures.
  • Images appear to be over enlarged (some are too grainy and lack definition). The book is imposing, but the quality of printing is not there and the small format camera with which Cartier-Bresson took these pictures does not justify this level of enlargement.

My initial impression was that the whole point of “Images a la sauvette” was to portray the decisive moment (in which a photography works), but some of the images are surprisingly static: images of fruit for sale – link, horse harness blankets – link.

Some of the images make strong use of the tension caused by placing objects in the border of the frame, but Cartier-Bresson was sometimes careless about extraneous elements on the edge of the frame (which unfortunately he refused to crop?). This could perhaps be attributable to the imprecise frames of a rangefinder camera in some cases, but in others it is clear that he was either not paying attention to this or that he did not care. Some pictures are ruined by this (eg cyclist in front of empty tables – link).

——————- ooo ——————-

I also had a look at the documentary “L’amour tout court”(2). In its full version (which can be seen, with the audio removed due to copyright restrictions, in here), an interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson is intercut with short passages by some acquaintances of the photographer, including the writer Yves Bonnefoy, painter Avigdor Arikha and filmmaker Otar Iosseliani. Some of the comments made by these artists complements Cartier-Bresson’s view on photography (for example, both Arikha and Cartier-Bresson seem to agree on the importance of visiting museums as a way of learning how to “look”), but in some other cases these seems to be contradictory views. For example, in one passage Bonnefoy praises Cartier-Bresson ability to sustain a conversation with friends while at the same time being able to take a photograph. A few minutes later Cartier-Bresson himself would say that photography takes enormous concentration and that you cannot have a conversation while taking pictures.

The documentary includes some insights into what is important for Cartier-Bresson as a photographer. One thing that comes across quite clear is that in many cases he was not particularly worried about the results and was more interested in the shooting process as a way of documenting life, not apparently unlike Gary Winogrand, for instance, who derived great pleasure from the act of shooting. His general attitude towards the technical elements of photography seems to be that of indifference. Some comments he makes seem to suggest that he did not develop his own film, for instance; while some photographs seem to have been “retouched” by the publishers of some of his books to improve the impact of the picture when viewed.

What seem to matter most to Cartier-Bresson is being receptive to the situation in front of us and prepared for the fleeting moment in which the subject will align in harmony with its surroundings. Cartier-Bresson attributes  some of his photographs to luck (Gare Saint-Lazare, for instance, where he could not see the man jumping the poodle through his camera’s viewfinder) and in a way seems to denounce previsualisation – at least for the purposes of street photography – as useless when he affirms “if you want it, you get nothing”. I have been wondering myself if he meant to say more by this, if what he really wanted to say was that there was no point in taking a rehearsed picture because there is no real life (as in spontaneity or sense of immediacy) in it, no real sense of the organic.

Notwithstanding the above, Cartier-Bresson places great emphasis in form (above even light) and makes the point, repeatedly, that photographs (like other visual art forms, perhaps) should adhere to the principles of the golden ratio when looking at the placement of elements within the frame. Geometry and proportion thus played an important part in his way of taking pictures, but there was more than that. He also placed great emphasis in the meaning and interpretation of what we shoot, in a deepening of the process of looking, of making associations between what we are capturing and how that can convey a concept. Many of the pictures shown in the documentary had an idea behind them, and the artists himself, or a critic looking at this, could elaborate on that idea, and how it was reflected in the interaction between the various elements arranged within the frame, at the precise time when such arrangement made sense. That, for me, represents the essence of the “decisive moment” and perhaps what separates Cartier-Bresson, and many other great practitioners of this type of photography, such as Friedlander, Winogrand and Frank, from the less successful imitators that just place organic and geometric forms together without any sense of purpose other than to satisfy a certain aesthetic.

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(1)  Cartier-Bresson, H. (1952) Images a la sauvette. 1st edn. Paris: Editions Verve.
(2) O’Byrne, R. (2001) Henri Cartier Bresson – just plain love (documentary). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYYwqo8HKbw (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

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