Cartier-Bresson’s Street Photography: The Perfect Take

61yXPxQLYXLOn the 22nd of August 1908, painter and pioneering photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France. By self-admission, his first true love of photography was inspired by a 1930 photograph of Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. The picture captured the very essence of a joyful moment in time. Cartier-Bresson remembered:“The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph […] of the black kids running in a wave I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street. I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” Initiated into the mysteries of the simple “Brownie” snapshot camera as a boy, the later influence of masters such as Atget and Man Ray spurred him on to follow a career as picture taker. Travelling and photographing Africa with a miniature camera as a young man, the portability of a small camera left a significant impression on him which determined him to buy his first 35-mm Leica in 1933. And the rest is history… he said, “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to ‘trap’ life.”

The Decisive Moment was the title of a book written by Cartier-Bresson and published in 1952. It was originally entitled Images à la Sauvette. “Cartier-Bresson remarked, in the fifties, when he published his images a` la sauvette (images taken, or stolen, on the run), “to me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” And then: “photography is not like painting. . . .There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. . . . Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” Later, when he had given up photography and returned to painting, where he had begun, he conclude81drJDWpZILd that the photograph was an “instant drawing.” And he was never very interested in what happened in the darkroom. (Carol Armstrong, ‘Automatism and Agency Intertwined: A Spectrum of Photographic Intentionality’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 38, No. 4, Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art Since the Sixties, edited by Diarmud Costello, Margaret Iversen, and Joel Snyder, Summer 2012). 

Embellished with a collage cover by Henri Matisse, his book and its images have since influenced generations of photographers; its English title came to define the universally recognised  formal peak in which all elements in the photographic frame accumulate to form the perfect image. Paired with the artists humanist viewpoint, Cartier-Bressons photography has become part of the worlds collective memory. Cartier-Bressons capacity to conjure coherence and harmony out of a chaotic world appears effortless and innate a deep-centred attitude rather than a merely learned technique.  The photograph is a small weapon for changing the world’” Cartier-Bresson was known to have once said. His “humane, spontaneous photographs helped establish photojournalism as an art form. His theory that photography can capture the meaning beneath outward appearance in instants of extraordinary clarity” (Britannica). Notable were his observations of the effects of poverty and revolution around the world which led to his co-founding of Magnum Photos, the first international photographic cooperative.  According to Cartier-Bresson, “Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Magnum’s photojournalists from across the world have covered many historical events of the 20th century and their works focused on universal themes such as family life, drugs, religion, war, poverty, famine, crime, government and celebrities. 

Julian Stallabrass writes that, “it hardly seems possible that such images could be achieved through that dumb, literal medium, street photography. The best pictures appear to make a strange sense, both formally and in what they say about people and their relations. To begin to understand how such photographs were made and, perhaps more important, how they were used and to what effect, would be a valuable task, though one which would take the enquirer far beyond the study of photography or even art alone. (…) Cartier- Bresson’s subject matter (especially in 51wC5D3ykZLthe 1930s) and his entire method of working: found objects snatched from ‘life’, recognised unconsciously, registered mechanically in silver and then not interfered with in the printing – as is well known, even cropping the image was forbidden.” (Julian Stallabrass, review of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art by Jean-Pierre Montier and Ruth, in The Burlington Magazine,Vol. 139, No. 1135, Oct., 1997). The use of the small camera was to become especially relevant to Cartier-Bresson’s love of capturing raw reality. “It lent itself not only to spontaneity but to anonymity as well. So much did Cartier-Bresson wish to remain a silent, and even unseen, witness, that he covered the bright chromium parts of his camera with black tape to render it less visible, and he sometimes hid the camera under a handkerchief. The man was similarly reticent about his life and work.” (Britannica)