Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) gained fame wandering the world photographing people. A Frenchman by birth, his first love was painting, but after several years of study and little success, he turned to photography. In the 1930’s he was one of the first to use the new 35 mm film and a rangefinder camera. With his Leica and 50 mm lens, the camera and lens he worked with for most of his life, Cartier-Bresson took quick photos of people along the streets of Paris and other cities of Europe. He called his photography “real life reportage” and over the years, his style of street photography influenced thousands of photographers.
“I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” Cartier-Bresson said. The small rangefinder camera he used, as opposed to the large format cameras more common at the time, allowed him to take photos often before people were aware they were being photographed. New possibilities opened to him as he photographed people not in the formal studio setting, but where they worked and lived.
A quiet man with the knack of blending into the crowd, Cartier-Bresson’s goal was to take a complete photos at the time he snapped the shutter. “When you hit the target there is no need to crop the picture.” He stated in the 2003 film Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye.
Cartier-Bresson’s most famous photos captured what he called “the decisive moment.” His ability to show both ordinary and famous people at unique moments gave his photos a significance that touched most everyone who viewed his work. Keep in mind, he didn’t shoot eight digital shots a second at the “almost decisive moment.” He shot 35mm film, one frame at a time. He manually focused the lens, set shutter speed and sized the aperture while pre-visualizing the shot through the camera viewfinder. Many of the images he photographed really did exist for only a moment.
“When a photographer raises his camera at something,” he said, “there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment.” Henri Cartier-Bresson’s body of work exemplifies not only his ability to seize the moment, but also a keen understanding of human nature that enabled him to anticipate what might happen next.
And what photographer doesn’t strive to see that decisive moment, with camera ready, just before it comes along.
To learn more about the life and works Henri Cartier-Bresson I recommend Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Biography by Pierre Assouline . There is also the 2003 documentary film, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye. It is available on Netflix.
If you would like to know more about street photography, I suggest Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson by Clive Scott and Vivian Maier: Street Photographer by Vivian Maier, John Maloof and Geoff Dyer.
To follow a current day street photographer take a look at Eric Kim’s work. You can find him at: www.erickimphotography.com.
November 29, 2011