Saturday, November 30, 2013

Henri Cartier-Bresson (A Different Twist)

"I’m not interested in documenting. Documenting is extremely dull and I’m a very bad reporter."

Henri Cartier-Bresson *

Here are some of my recent thoughts on the famous man held by some to be the father of modern photojournalism

As a founder of Magnum, the photojournalist world rightfully embrace Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). His influence in that circle can never be underestimated. That said I think it can be beneficial to see his work and it's connection to the modernists he knew. Hence forth for brevity I will refer to him as HCB.

all images videos etc; property of various owners. Magnum, HCB foundation, Cartier-Bresson, etc

 HCB's first book with it's Matisse cover.

It is not that the fine art photo world did not embrace HCB (1908-2004). It's his similarity in commitment to the aesthetics he swam in that makes him much more like Edward Weston (1886-1958), than most would think. Weston (I'm guessing) is a man not generally studied in photojournalism circles. 

Anyone who understands Weston might argue they are in no way similar because Weston used a big slow camera and was considerably more plotting in his approach, while HCB used small fast cameras, was more intuitive in his approach. That is certainly true and their contributions at least on the surface seem quite different but.....


Weston and Cartier-Bresson together are like a linchpin into modern photography, much as say Cezanne and Van Gogh would be for painting. Weston and even more so Stieglitz (1864-1946) is generally regarded as the modern prototypical "fine art photographer".

It seems from my perspective many photographers still have no particular knowledge of Mr. Stieglitz's contributions, his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and the undeniable impact his embracing of modern art had on all most every avenue of photography. 

To note HCB was eventually deeply affected by his associations with some of the very modernists Mr. Stieglitz brought to his Manhattan galleries. At the time Steiglitz showed these artists most people were not open minded enough to digest what they had to offer.

Steiglitz 1907

While Weston was friends with Deigo Rivera, Robinson Jeffers, Henrietta Shore and a big fan of Brancusi, one must remember HCB's association with the artists Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti and others. 

HCB is an artist first a photographer second. His interest has always been pictures first, media second. Before photography he studied painting and drawing. At the end of his career he tires of making photographs and spends his allotted earth time drawing.

To me it seems his most interesting images are rarely his reportage images, in fact it is fascinating he tells Robert Capa "I am a surrealist" and Capa tells him "say your a photojournalist if you want to make photographs".  I am guessing here Capa means if you need food and shelter you will be better served by calling yourself a journalist. The idea of HCB calling himself a "journalist" is well portrayed here nytimes/lensblog

In fact before he falls for photography, he struggles greatly to find a voice with painting. HCB begins to relate a great deal to the surrealists. At one point in Paris he socialized with them. This is not a crowd your typical photojournalist in the making would break a lot of bread with.

The following quote is from Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work by Peter Galassi  
"...The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings."


"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.



The little human detail can become a leitmotiv."
Henri Cartier-Bresson




  Matisse about 1914-19




Matisse 1908

Matisse about 1912-18



Matisse about 1950-55


I think many photographers miss the point that if we are organizing information and or shapes in rectangles failing to study the other 2d arts can be a great loss. Only letting oneself be affected by photography may be short changing oneself. 

See specific Matisse on right.

Above, two Matisse views of Notre Dame, both are very involved with how to place shapes in rectangles, no matter the content. This does not mean content is absent, only that the image maker has cared deeply if the picture has a strong voice by giving great energy to its graphic structure. Matisse was also a pioneer and explorer of creating new picture spaces.


Excellent example of using shapes while still working the magic of the decisive moment.


By no means do I claim to be a HCB expert. I was always under the impression he never cropped images. I saw a massive HCB exhibition in the late 70s where each print was surrounded by a black edge.

Often at least at this time that was an implication to the viewers you were seeing an image made from an un-cropped negative. One gets this effect from filing out the opening of a negative carrier - creating a black border on the print.

Call me ignorant or uninformed I was shocked upon discovering that the image was severely cropped (see book image below). It is in many ways his most iconic image. Maybe this is newer info, I have not kept up with all the writing on him.

As it turns out in the 1998 film below he explains how he took this image (and what he didn't like about it) offering insight & dismantling the myth. He didn't print his own work but I am quite sure he had very specific instructions for his printer(s). 

Most ambitious photographers (at least in respecting the myth of the un-cropped HCB image aesthetic) would reject such an image from a contact sheet in a millisecond. 

The minute the water molecules are moved by that foot hitting the water the (that) "decisive moment" is no longer available. Well that was the idea associated with a lot of his images. 

Now for me and many others this image has lived in our consciousness for many many years. The moment before a foot connects with a surface has been elevated enough to alert photographers of the interest of things of it's ilk. There is probably no serious photographer "art schooled", "technical schooled", or "journalism schooled" who is not familiar with it.

If one digs around there were certainly forerunners pointing photographers towards such moments, Muybridge and his horse studies in 1872 and so on. Maybe even Degas's paintings. If one studies Degas you will find he utilized photographic knowledge.

Since this HCB image most of us have reformulated and rethought (if only subconsciously) that original idea and we understand there are many decisive moments. 


My first HCB book I purchased in 1979 or 1980.

Found this used in 2010 while photographing in Seattle.

Below is fantastic documentary from 1998 about his life and work.  The film was directed by Patricia Wheatley, who interviewed the 90-year-old Cartier-Bresson to learn more about his lifetime of creating art.

* Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1971 interviewed by
Sheila Turner-Seed


  1. Thanks for sharing this very informative and well researched post.

  2. Nice piece George, how many thousands of hours have been spent writing dissertations on that man jumping the puddle I wonder?

  3. Thanks Nick, John and Unknown it is very nice to get feedback and know people are reading this post.

  4. Enjoyed this piece very much George !

  5. I'm surprised by the comparison I did not see: Magritte. Many of the ones compared to Matisse immediately made me think of the Assassin series.

  6. Thanks Pat, I am glad you enjoyed it. george

    Hi Dan,
    Thanks for mentioning this painting;
    I hope people will go investigate it. Excellent, I had not seen that image before. The composition is very interesting and certainly in keeping with my thoughts structurally (composition wise) on Matisse & HCB. I think I just had far more personal study logged on Matisse rather than Magritte. I also came to a place of, needing to stop. I think more investigation of HCB in relation to his artistic peers can yield many things of interest. Thanks again, george