Henri Cartier-Bresson

January 22, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

 

 
 
 
Box Brownie
Regarded as one of the greatest photographers of his time, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a shy French photographer who was considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. He helped develop the ‘street photography’ style that has influenced generations of photographers that followed.  Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in Chanteloupe, France to middle-class parents.  As a boy, he started off by taking holiday snapshots using a ‘Box Brownie’ which he owned; he later experimented with a 3x4 view camera. He was also interested in painting and studied for two years in a Paris studio. This early training helped develop his eye for composition which became his greatest asset as a photographer.
 
Leica 35mm Range Finder
After returning from a year in West Africa it was in Marseille that Cartier-Bresson discovered photography. He was introduced to a Leica 35 mm range finder. This was a crucial experience, a new world, a new way of seeing the unpredictable was opened up to him. He remained devoted to the Leica throughout his career. He said that the camera itself was an ‘extension of my eye’. Cartier-Bresson served in the second World War and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of France.  After two unsuccessful attempts he escaped the Prisoner of War camp and worked with the underground until the War’s end. It is because of his experiences during this period which made him the photographer he was; he saw death, sadness, hardship and joy on the faces of the people he was surrounded by but not only that, he also felt those emotions which is why he could read such people and get the images he did. On resuming his career he helped form the Magnum Picture Agency in 1947. Assignments for major magazines would take him on travels around the world where he would photograph people and their surroundings.
Most of Cartier-Bresson’s photography is a collection of the little details. He quoted in his book,  The Decisive Moment, ‘In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject’.  This is true and can be seen in his pictures. He captures moments in time which have strong narratives. Some critics have accused him of being nothing more than a ‘snap shooter,’ but the best of Cartier-Bresson’s works of capturing human emotions could not be captured by luck alone, they are snapshots elevated to the level of art.  The anonymity that the small camera gave him on the streets wherever he was, was essential in overcoming formal and unnatural behaviour of those who were aware of being photographed.  To preserve its anonymity he would paint all the shiny parts of his Leica with black paint and then wait in ambush for the right time to occur seizing that moment. Cartier-Bresson quoted ‘avoid making a commotion, just as you wouldn’t stir up the water before fishing. Don’t use flash out of respect for the natural lighting, even when there isn’t any. If these rules aren’t followed, the photographer becomes unbearably intrusive’ ( The Decisive Moment). It was his unobtrusive manner that allowed him to capture some of the world’s best photographs which have given us a timeless insight into history.  
Gandhi breaking Fast just before his assassination.
Gandhi breaking Fast just before his assassination.
A picture which sticks in ones mind is that of Gandhi in his last moments before he was assassinated. Cartier-Bresson, who was a close friend of Gandhi, was granted a photo session with him.  Cartier-Bresson was able to capture him after breaking his last ever fast. Fifteen minutes after leaving him, Cartier-Bresson heard shouts that Gandhi had been shot, he ran back and managed to get pictures of Gandhi’s family at his deathbed. However the most emotional image captured was that of India’s Prime Minister Nehru when he announced the death of Mahatma Gandhi to wailing crowds outside his home. Cartier-Bresson recounted the atmosphere of the anguished mob and even remembered what settings he used to capture that image as he never used flash in his photos. These are just examples of how Cartier-Bresson has captured an iconic moment which cannot be repeated or copied. 
 


Les Halles 1952
Cartier-Bresson manages to capture peoples emotion or lack of in his pictures.  In picture ‘Les Halles, 1952’ for example a worker is standing with his arms crossed and straight faced, it is hard to distinguish what he is feeling; even the man next to him does not give much indication. It appears that they are not happy being photographed and are in some way protective over something or someone. In the picture ‘Funeral of the Charonne Victims, 1962’ it is quite a strong narrative with the woman wiping her tears and the men holding hands giving each other comfort and showing solidarity. This shows that Cartier-Bresson produces strong narratives with his pictures. It is very easy to build a story around everything within that frame because he captures the right image at the right time. He somehow manages to capture your attention and imagination and opens a whole new world to the viewer.
 


The details within Cartier-Bresson’s pictures seem to indicate where it has been taken or what it is about. For example, in the picture ‘Berlin, 1962,’ the street sign gives enough information to be able to search where the picture was taken, had there only been one street name, this would have made it almost impossible to locate. This is also the case with the picture ‘New York, USA1947,’ the poster in the window of James Cagney in the film 13 Rue Madeleine gives us a distinct date of when it was taken. Cartier-Bresson somehow manages to date and locate his images in his own subtle way.
 
 
Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika
The picture on the left may be considered just a snapshot by critics but it shows that it is within some kind of war zone as the walls have been destroyed and there is an injured child in it, but regardless, the children are happy and are playing in the rubble which shows their innocence and ignorance to what is happening around them. This allowed Cartier-Bresson to go deep into areas and capture what life there was really like. He caught children in the comfort of their own environment and this sometimes included them being naked. The picture that is said to have inspired him to take out his camera and go out into the street was that ofHungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled ‘Three boys at Lake Tanganyika.’ Cartier-Bresson said: ‘this captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive’. 

 
Today it can be seen that many photographers are adopting Cartier-Bresson’s style of photography especially in wedding photography. Many find it less obtrusive and find themselves more at ease for photographs to be taken in this way which then allows the photographer to really capture couples’ emotions of their special day from a distance. This is fast replacing the need for staged photographs because nowadays with peoples different attitudes and moods, the modern day couple prefers to have pictures taken in this way to capture the true moments of their special day. Storybook style albums are fast becoming popular with couples as this tells the story of their day from the bride having her make-up applied through to the wedding ceremony then onto the reception and dinner and finally the first dance. This differs from the traditional posed pictures with friends and families.
Cartier-Bresson’s style of photography was not using professional models; he would take pictures quietly, unobtrusively without the person even knowing that they were being photographed. Before he takes a shot, he has scanned the background to see how that shot would tell a story. He is a great influence and mentor to many photographers today who have adopted his style and methods in their work.
‘The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression ... In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.’ 


                       

 



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