Henri Cartier-Bresson

Prior to Assignment Two, I decided to do a little research into street photography to build up my knowledge in this specific style. Through this research, one name came to light as being the revolutionary street photographer of his time; Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson was a French Photographer who helped develop the style of street photography greatly. “Many consider him to be the greatest photo-journalist of the century.(1)”  It is because of this that Cartier-Bresson is the perfect photographer to research for this part of the course. We are going to look into this iconic photographer’s style and techniques, taking pointers from how he approaches street photography; and implementing these into assignment two.

Firstly, let’s look at what Cartier-Bresson considers to be the most important part of street photography. He considers taking notice of the world, and truly understanding the people you are photographing as hugely important. “He seeks rather to describe ‘a place, its people and culture’ what he calls ‘the texture of its everyday life“(2). He seeks not only to capture a fleeting moment; but to truly understand that moment; what is the context? Who is the subject? This is a highly important aspect of street photography which I have noticed from the last few exercises. Taking the time to truly watch people and really SEE what they are doing is the key to this style of photography. “Cartier-Bresson recognises that his talent is ‘rooted in observation of ordinary life”(3).  Cartier-Bresson observes and captures subjects that most photographers would just walk on by. He feels so strongly about the subjects that he is capturing, that this is what he said of fellow landscape photographers of his time; “‘The world is going to pieces’ Cartier-Bresson chided in the 1930’s, ‘and people like Ansel Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.'(4)” Whether this statement is just or unjust; the comment alone emphasises greatly Cartier-Bresson’s commitment to his subject. Capturing landscapes and ‘rocks’ seem so futile and unimportant to this photographer. This is because he was ABSORBED in his subject and style. This is vital in photography. He loved what he captured, and he was passionate about it; so much so that he could not fathom why anyone would want to photograph anything other than people! All this highlights that in street photography there are two important points to note. Firstly, seeking through ones images to describe places, people and their culture accurately. Secondly, to be passionate about these specific places, people and cultures which you are seeking to portray through photographs.

The next aspect of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography that we are going to explore is the importance he places on ‘the decisive moment’. In the previous exercise; Capturing The Moment, I began to see a little of the importance of capturing that vital moment of action. This is even more important in street photography, as an otherwise mundane scene can be transformed with just one action, expression, or as Cartier-Bresson discovered, a leap over a puddle! But how do we go about capturing that ‘decisive moment’? “The photographer moves in pursuit of the action as it unfolds and in this sense is himself ‘on the run’. In the midst of the movement of the world, events occur, moments appear and as the picture moves into balance, hopefully something is grasped.(5)” This one moment is what can make or break a photo. Staking out the subject and knowing the culture is hugely important; but completely pointless if when that great moment comes along, you don’t capture it at that exact perfect time. This is why Cartier-Bresson calls it ‘the decisive moment’, because it is capturing that moment that can separate a great photographer from a good photographer. “This he called ‘the decisive moment’, a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder…(6)” It is this exact right moment when the certain gesture or activity is at its peak that the photographer must act. Being ready to pounce when the time comes is vital. Cartier-Bresson was always ready; as we will see in his famous photo ‘Behind the Gare St. Lazare’.

Therefore, we have seen the importance of that ‘decisive moment’ when all the elements come together. But we must now take heed of what Cartier-Bresson does at this moment. Not only is he always alert and ready to press the shutter; but when the time comes, he is an expert at framing the image perfectly. “Cartier-Bresson maintains that the immediacy of action of taking a picture ‘on the run’, the framing in the viewfinder at that moment of ‘seeing’, is crucial to grasping the scene.(7)” I have learnt through previous exercises that whilst ‘on the go’ and capturing street photography, it is not always easy to frame the image as well as if I was in a more controlled environment. However, this is an aspect of Cartier-Bresson’s photography that I can learn a lot from. He put great importance upon framing images; and was able to do this cleverly and accurately. We see this in his famous image of a man jumping over a puddle. “Look at the well-known picture, ‘Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932’ reproduced here. The silhouette Everyman figure in the foreground, so precisely poised in the air over his reflection in the puddle below him, perfectly echoes the doubled image of the ballerina on the torn poster in the background, and the poster itself reflected in the water…The event itself, obscure and elusive, has been permanently memorized within the boundaries of the frame. It is just barely contained. The leaping figure is not close to the centre of the image, as he theoretically might have been. The graphic thrust of the photograph, from left to right, follows his trajectory, suggesting a future moment, seconds later, when he will have vanished from the scene, and the splash from his mysterious jump will have subsided. (8)”  The image is perfectly composed and framed. One may think that this was a well-planned and set up photograph; however it most certainly was not. Cartier-Bresson claims that he took the photo quickly through a fence upon noticing the jumping figure. To produce an image so well-framed and composed in such a short space of time shows how talented Cartier-Bresson was at capturing that ‘decisive moment’. It was not just a fluke; but a skill and talent that this great photographer either learned, or simply just intuitively had. Either way; it has highlighted the great importance of framing in human subjects. Arranging the information found in the viewfinder and capturing it quickly and accurately are key points in producing a good image.




Below you will find a few more of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic photographs.










(1) LINFIELD, SUSIE (2011), The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, University of Chicago Press.

(2) WARD, KORAL (2008), Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19Th and 20Th Century Western Philosophy, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

(3) WARD, KORAL (2008), Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19Th and 20Th Century Western Philosophy, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

(4) DYER, GEOFF (2012), The Ongoing Moment, Canongate Books

(5) WARD, KORAL (2008), Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19Th and 20Th Century Western Philosophy, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

(6) DYER, GEOFF (2012), The Ongoing Moment, Canongate Books

(7) WARD, KORAL (2008), Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19Th and 20Th Century Western Philosophy, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd

(8) ANGIER, ROSWELL (2007), Train your gaze; A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography, AVA Publishing.

(9-13) KIM, ERIC, Eric Kim Photography; 10 Things Henri Cartier-Bresson Can Teach You About Street Photography, Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/start-here/, [Accessed 15/05/13]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s