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Masters: Henri Cartier-Bresson

For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.

To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.

To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.

It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.

- Henri Cartier-Bresson

In a recent interview on the NY Times’ fantastic photography blog Lens Elliott Erwitt made the comment: “The gold standard of photography remains, as it has always been, Henri Cartier-Bresson.” Reading this helped me to make up my mind which photographer to feature for my first analysis of the work of a ‘Master”. I think it is so terribly important for anyone with any ambition in the field of photography, and even for amateurs who want to improve their image-making, to study the work of other photographers. To identify mentors who’s work appeals to them, and to whom they can turn for inspiration and guidance, is the best way to learn and grow as a photographer. I am in no way advocating mimicking of someone else’s work, but rather, in an eclectic manner, taking away different lessons from a variety of photographers, indeed, painters, sculptors, film-makers… whatever inspires you!

It does make sense to start with Cartier-Bresson. He has become the “gold standard”, to use Erwitt’s words, and every photographer should at least be familiar with his more famous work. But what makes Cartier-Bresson’s work so great that it is referred to in this reverential way by so many photographers? What can we learn form his work?

To me, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are incredibly compelling, in the first place because of their structure, their strong sense of composition, and acute spacial awareness. What the Cartier-Bresson himself called “geometry”. He apparently developed this sensibility during his years of studying painting. This is key, I think, to having a ‘good eye’ as a photographer. Being able to identify what will make a good image, and how to frame it effectively.  This in itself is not a terribly unique quality, however, Cartier-Bresson had such a strong sense of composition that he was able to, quite incomprehensibly, frame compositions which appear carefully calculated of a subjects which were actually such candid, brief moments in time. This gives you a sense of a man who was an incredibly careful and constant observer, who’s vision was so trained and sensitive to ‘geometry’ and the frame, that the camera was almost as an extension of his eye.

Something that people seem to forget is that Cartier-Bresson was early on very strongly influenced by the early surrealist movement in Paris in the 1920′s. I think this is what alerted him to the subtleties of capturing coincidental moments and chance and capturing strange juxtapositions. He was also incredibly discrete, and that is what I admire most in his work and philosophy. He went to great lengths to avoid being noticed in order to be the consummate, unseen observer, the fly-on-the-wall, and capture those candid moments.

If you look at Cartier-Bresson’s body of work as a whole, it is the strong sense of unity, drive and purpose that really strikes you. Each photograph is a self-contained, complete artwork, that needs no explanation. They are so perfect in composition that they draw attention to themselves and become self-referential, leading the viewer to forget the notion of a photograph simply being a tool for recording ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, though almost all of Cartier-Bresson’s work was documentary in style and purpose, and simply to enjoy it as a piece of visual poetry.

I think every photographer at heart really wants to have Cartier-Bresson’s eye, his quickness and command of his instrument. To take the chaos of prosaic visual noise and pick out and combine different elements in an apparently casual-off-hand way and create such powerful visual impressions.

For a biography of Cartier-Bresson click here. For an image gallery, here.

May 09, 2011 | Filed under Masters and tagged with , , , .

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