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Starting out in street photography, you owe an immediate debt to Photography Pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson Cartier-Bresson didn’t invent street photography, not by any means, but his philosophy of the “decisive moment” defines it.

Cartier-Bresson Style/The Decisive Moment

Cartier-Bresson got my attention because he got in pictures what I wanted to get with poetry. The immediate, however ragged, true moment, makes art fully alive.

It’s a much harder achievement than it seems because, most of time, we live in the past, recording narratives.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Store

The decisive moment eludes definition. Generally it’s the point when all the elements come together in a precise expression. In photography, that’s when the ideal image is captured.

Cartier-Bresson got there gradually, starting out with music and paint. Photography drew him away with its ability to grab vivid reality as it occurred.

Following in the accidental footsteps of Eugene Atget (See Atget, Paris),  Henri Cartier-Bresson’s realistic pictures, pegged precisely in the real world, were like nothing before.

The “decisive moment,” a term associated with him that he never used, set a standard for street and documentary photographers just as Atget’s pictures of a disappearing Paris did for those who shoot urban landscapes.

Cartier-Bresson didn’t believe in what he considered gimmicks or dark room tricks to “bring an image out.” Either he got it at the instant his shutter clicked, or it just wasn’t worth saving.

Becoming Cartier-Bresson

Born in 1908 Chanteloup-en-Brie, France, Cartier-Bresson was drawn to artistic expression all his life. He first started with music but gave that up as well as surrealist painting before making a landing with photography.

When he was a child, he owned a Box Brownie camera, but he didn’t consider taking pictures a career possibility until he saw Martin Munkacsi’s Three Boys At Lake Tanganyika.

The picture, vibrant and vital without sacrificing composition, convinced him that pictures could be more than static recordings of events. They could also capture an apex of experience with all the vitality life had to offer.

The rest is history, Cartier-Bresson’s unique style of picture taking inspires and informs the values of street photographers more than a hundred years after his birth.

His work led him to start Magnum Photography with Robert Capa and others, and that cooperative grew to shoot a profound collection of documentary photography in a world hurtling into modern times.

Cartier-Bresson Photographic Imprint

In quotes over his career in photography, Cartier-Bresson came close to answering the question many artists find impossible — what makes one picture art and another just another passing image?

For him, it was that moment when all the pictorial elements came together in an expression that was more and deeper than the combined parts. Give him credit for being opinionated, but others either didn’t try to explain it or came up with less.

(Consider a description about art by one of my favorite painters, Barnett Newman: “An artist paints so that he will have something to look at; at times he must write so that he will also have something to read.”)

Cartier-Bresson took thousands and thousands of pictures never seen by anyone else, a fact true with most professional photographers. The artist’s eye knows if his or her lens actually captured the desired image.

Deborah Julian, my partner and street photographer, fills her storage disk to capacity, almost all with pictures that will not be seen by anyone else. Every few months, she has to start a major purge.

I don’t know a professional photographer who doesn’t take hundreds of images for every one that becomes public.

Street Photography Techniques That Worked

Cartier-Bresson’s tactics in nailing his decisive moments are legend.

First, he used a Leica camera almost exclusively because it was so small it was easier for him to not be noticed by his subjects. The instant the subject of his picture noticed he was being photographed, the art left like air from a balloon.

He went even farther, using black tape and paint to cover the lighter exterior surfaces of his Leicas to make them less visible.

But the technique that should get more exposure and was probably most effective in making his images possible was one he learned before turning to photography as a career.

Escaping to the Ivory Coast after a severe personal crisis in 1931, Cartier-Bresson earned a living shooting game and selling it. He later employed his learned hunting techniques in stalking people to shoot with his camera, using camouflage and misdirection.

Cartier-Bresson used Leica camera’s almost exclusively. He valued them for their small size but also for their versatility. Since he did not believe in cropping his photos, this camera’s versatility in helping him catch the one and only instant he wanted was irresistible.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Personal Decisive Moment

In 1947, Henri Cartier-Bresson became one of the founding photographers in Robert Capa’s collective Magnum Photos. The aim of this cooperative was to “feel the pulse” of the times and to record it as permanent visual record.

Each member had dedicated photo assignments, and Cartier-Bresson’s were India and China, a part of the world convulsing after World War II.

Among other things, he photographed the last imperial eunuchs in China before communism swept tradition aside. Tragically, he arrived in India just in time to record the funeral of the assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

Later, he traveled to photograph in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the Soviet Union as it emerged as a melting pot of power after the war.

After twenty years of photography that stands as a crucial record of the most dynamic period in history. He left Magnum as a principle in 1966, when he was 58.

After that, he concentrated on moments less decisive — landscapes and portraits.

Return to Painting

Cartier-Bresson lived to be 95. Interestingly, he rarely took pictures in the last thirty years of his life. Turning his back on his legacy, he put his camera away in a safe.

Commenting in as complete a reversal as any artist has ever made, he said that photography, for all his contributions, was just a substitute for painting, a way of making sketches.

Completing his personal revolution, he also divorced his first wife, Elie, and marrying another photographer, Martine Franck, with whom he had his only child, Melanie, at age 62.

Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 as the world of photography underwent a revolution, rapidly moving from film to digital picture taking.

You can’t help but wonder what he’d have made of the once unimaginable versatility of digital picture taking a manipulation.


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