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Henri Cartier-Bresson - A Decisive Moment in Time
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Henri Cartier-Bresson - A Decisive Moment in Time
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The Photographic Development

As a young kid, Cartier-Bresson was introduced to photography with a Box Brownie, given to him by his parents, which he used primarily for holiday snapshots. He would eventually experiment with a 3x4 inch view camera but it was in 1931 when recuperating in Marseille on his return from the African coast that the catalyst came in the form of a photograph taken by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi that drew him in. Called ‘Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika,’ it showed three young African boys in the buff heading to the lake backlit. To Cartier-Bresson, it was that moment of capture that spoke volumes of the element of joy in their freedom, grace and spontaneousness.

In relation to that photograph, Cartier-Bresson recalled, “The only thing that was a complete amazement to me... (that) brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph…of the black kids running in a wave, I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with a camera. I said, ‘Damn it,’ and took my camera and went out into the street.”

It was Munkacsi’s photograph that finally turned Cartier-Bresson from painting to photography. While in Marseille, he purchased a Leica 35mm rangefinder camera with a 50mm standard lens that would be his staple for many years. Cartier-Bresson considered his Leica as an ‘extension of his eye’ and added, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.”

He would soon appreciate the unobtrusiveness of a small camera and what that ultimately meant to him in a crowded public or when capturing spontaneity when natural poise was always going to pose a greater and more genuine sense of value to his imagination. And it was this natural gait that truly impressed him about the smallness of his Leica for it helped him explore the wider realm of what eventually became street photography. The ability to immerse himself into the frenzy of movement and transformation that liberated his senses far more than painting could do for him.

Like a spring that has been ratcheted up for years, Cartier-Bresson found the release he had been looking for and with that, he travelled through Europe – Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid – and walked the street life, readily equipped to capture the moments he desired. As early as 1932, Cartier-Bresson held his first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York followed by a stint at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. Two years later (1934), he jointly exhibited with Manuel Alvarez Bravo in Mexico.

In the same year, Cartier-Bresson was introduced to a young Polish photographer by the name of David Szymin (later changed to David Seymour) and found that both of them had much in common. Soon they became close friends. And through Seymour, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer called Endré Friedmann who eventually changed his name to Robert Capa. It didn’t take long for the three of them to eventually share a studio together. It was Capa who was instrumental in convincing Cartier-Bresson to dissociate himself from being called a ‘surrealist photographer.’

He said, “Don’t keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear.”

An Insight into Cartier-Bresson’s Equipment and Techniques

Cartier-Bresson’s equipment comprised 35mm Leica rangefinder cameras with the standard Leitz Summicron 50mm lens. It’s not certain how many he used in his lifetime or if he had other focal length lenses but it is thought that he did use some shorter focal length wide-angle lenses for the occasional landscape photography. It is said that he had a 90mm short telephoto but he carried nothing else – no tripod, no flash, reflectors or other aids.

In fact Cartier-Bresson’s disdain for the flash is well known as he saw it as “impolite…like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand.” In fact he had this to say in the preface to his 1952 publication, “The Decisive Moment”:


(c) Agence France-Presse-Getty Images




“…and no photographs taken with the aid of flashlight either, if only out of respect for the actual light… Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.”

Cartier-Bresson’s unobtrusive style of photography made all the more apparent with his adoption of the Leica gave him the much-needed route to capturing life in its most natural state and allowed him a passage to approach his subjects with respect and dignity. It was this approach that allowed Cartier-Bresson to capture photographs of the assassinated Mohandas Gandhi lying in state in 1948. In stark contrast LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White had her film confiscated by Gandhi’s devotees who considered her actions disrespectful. She was using a large camera and flash.

Essentially his time in photography up till the end of World War II was based on the use of his first and only Leica, which he had buried and then unearthed following his escape from the Nazi POW camp.

Because of the Leica’s chrome body, Cartier-Bresson’s characteristic habit was to cover those parts with black tape in order to ensure that he and his camera were less visible. The inconspicuous nature of a camera that does not attract attention (and does not pose reflection) was the essential part of his ‘de rigueur.’

Cartier-Bresson never carried his Leica with the camera case. His lens was always open, always ready to use although when he did use a lens cap, it was tied to a string. His imitable photographic style was to hold the camera in his hand or nestled in a crook of his arm, always ready to respond in that instant of an action.

Unlike the so-called conventional wisdom, Cartier-Bresson dismissed the idea of strapping the camera around the neck or slung around the shoulder. For him they were too inconspicuous and too inaccessible. Beaumont Newhall wrote in a 1964 publication called, ‘A Velvet Hand, a Hawk’s Eye: Cartier-Bresson at Work’:

“Once, lunching with friends at a restaurant, he suddenly pushed back his chair, put his camera to his eye, snapped the shutter and sat down – without even interrupting the table conversation. He had seen, while talking, a famous painter. Days later, we saw the photograph he had taken. It seemed, in its direct simplicity and in its penetration, the product of a formal portrait sitting.”

Although technologies in film and camera designs were relatively primitive during those years, the Leica proved fast enough in handling and the black-and-white films he relied on were good enough for his application. More importantly Leica’s reputation for high-resolution lenses had made it possible for Cartier-Bresson to operate the way he did – stealthily. Combining mobility, functionality and performance, Cartier-Bresson and his Leica were a powerful proposition for street photojournalism.

For Cartier-Bresson, the 35mm format helped free him from the cumbersome 4x5 press camera or the awkward 6x6cm TLRs, cameras that anchored him down with unwieldiness. Cartier-Bresson referred to the smaller film format as, “the velvet hand (and) the hawk’s eye.”

As it is with the principle of integrity at Magnum Photos, Cartier-Bresson never cropped his photographs after they were taken. In other words, he composed his photographs in-camera rather than exploit the manoeuvrability that darkrooms could offer. In fact every single one of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs were printed in full frame with neither cropping nor darkroom manipulation (something we now call post-editing).

Cartier-Bresson will always be associated with black-and-white imagery. His dabbling in colour was short-lived as he expressed disappointment with the few attempts he made. While he did process his own films during the early days of his first marriage, he subsequently did not make his own prints; something he quipped, “…never been interested… never, never.”

“Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing.”

Interestingly although others see his photography as ‘art,’ Cartier-Bresson’s dismissal of such claims and adulations as rather a gut reaction to a brief but decisive moment in time.

As for automatic cameras, he had this to say, “it’s like shooting partridges with a machine gun.”, Copyright 2011, Kenneth E Norton, and Image66media