Henri Cartier-Bresson: personal inspiration

Paris, 1952. Henri-Cartier Bresson

Father of photojournalism

Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered to be the father of photojournalism, a co-founder of Magnum. One of the early adopters of 35mm cameras and the Leica. HCB is the master of candid photography. It's evident that when one looks at his images he seems to embrace life and adventure. He was captured by the Nazis, escaping on the third attempt, a witness to Stalin and China's workforce and one of the last photographers to photograph Gandhi before his assassination. He traveled the world with it seems an endless quest to photograph life. His first love was painting from an early age and pursued it again later in life.

There are so many words written about HCB so I do not intend to write a long post. This is more of a personal note to you on why to this day, Henri Cartier-Bresson continues to inspire me in my work and it's one of the reasons I picked up a camera in the first place.

All pictures on this page © Henri Cartier-Bresson /Magnum Photos.

Magnum Photos
A man jumps from a wooden ladder - 1932-Henri Cartier-Bresson

I find myself enamored viewing his work more than any other photographer. I have most of Henri Cartier-Bresson's publications and I often find myself with my head in one of the books. In my opinion, his earliest work in the 30's and 40's are his best, clearly with a heavy influence from his painting days and surrealism. Even though HCB himself once said his later photojournalism work was the strongest. Just last week I was flicking through the pages of his 1930s Paris street work and I'm astounded at his vision, his patience, his masterly use of light and geometry. If you haven't yet seen this movie, The Impassioned Eye on DVD, it will blow your mind.

Inspiration comes to photographers in many ways. For me, it's primarily through books. In fact, my studio is chock full of photographers I have learned through art galleries, annual events like the World Press Foundation, movies, and a few blogs I follow.

The Impassioned Eye
Photograph of Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson remains one of the world's best photographers who teach me about using my camera, that gray stuff between my ears, fleeting moments, geometry, light, working with people, my approach, emotion, and sensitivity. As a wedding photojournalist, Henri Cartier-Bresson has been conducive in tackling my mindset and hurdles of capturing weddings and how to remain true to oneself. It's easy to get influenced by trends and the wedding cliches. But a good photograph is still a good picture.

HCB loved to paint, initially learning from his Uncle but was killed in the First World War. In 1927 he studied under the tutelage of Cubist painter and sculptor André Lohte. Bresson became discouraged with the mixture of Cubist's and classical way of seeing. In reality, this early training at a private school helped him to see and react to framing his images.

Philip Thomas's style
Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Many artists over hundreds of years use a similar composition throughout their work. Many photographers who use this method are the world renowned documentary and street photographer Steve McCurry. For example, you can go back in time and see how the Fibonacci spiral (other names are the Golden Ratio, golden rectangle or golden spiral) has been practiced throughout history and nature. A few of my favorite painters and artists are Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Kandinsky and pretty much the impressionist movement.

Starting as a painter, even years later as a photojournalist, he described himself as a surrealist and a painter, his true love that he would return to later in life. HCB befriended many artists, including Max Ernst, a member of the surrealist movement and among other artists found inspiration in the work of Eugene Atget. I have one of Atget's books 'Paris', an astonishing page turner. Henri Cartier-Bresson was asked what makes a great composition, geometry was his one simple answer.

Fibonacci spiral
Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson interviewed if I recall at the pre opening of one of his galleries about what makes a great composition. Geometry was his one simple answer.
I was watching an interview where HCB he commented how geometry is incredibly important. Reframing, or taking a brief moment to recheck the frame a few millimeters could be the difference between a fabulous photograph and an ordinary one.

What I love about his work is how rarely he never cropped images and had a contempt for it. By focusing on the use of geometry, lines, and rhythm of imaging, and studying HCB's work, subconsciously you will better your shooting. I believe that a gift has to be nourished and grown and you're not necessarily born with it. Photography is a craft. It has to be taught. Learn from your mistakes. Learn from the masters.

Pressing the camera button is the easiest thing to do. To me, it would seem wedding photography is so easy to so many who have never captured a wedding. But this is far from the truth. Be it sports, weddings, commercial or street photography. When Bresson was asked if you're born with a sense of design, his answer was it has to be developed. You have to find the 'decisive moment'.

Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Have you heard of the photographer's expression, 'shoot and pray'? The term used by photographers is not the way to improve your compositions or hoping (praying) to get the shot. It's a craft and has to discover over time. There are no shortcuts and it's better to shoot with determination, to slow down, think and studying composition through the viewfinder. Having said that, I also would say study all this but when it comes to shooting, don't over think. It has to come subconsciously. Rapid shooting has it's exceptions of course. Sports photographers, for example, have to capture a peak moment. But when it comes to weddings, sure, shoot a few frames rapidly if needed, but it's very distracting and intrusive - the clack clack clack.
I'm blessed to shoot Leica gear too, and throughout the six years, I've shot with the M9, the M(240) and now a M10. These rangefinder cameras have forced me to slow down. The cameras have only manual exposure and manual focus, so composition is first and foremost. I'm not advocating to go buy a Leica! Go pick up a film camera and load it up with a 36 exposure roll and my point will be made.

HCB Quotes

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time.”
“The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.”

“Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.”

“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.”

“Memory is very important, the memory of each photo taken, flowing at the same speed as the event. During the work, you have to be sure that you haven’t left any holes, that you’ve captured everything, because afterwards it will be too late.”

“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.”

“While we’re working, we must be conscious of what we’re doing.”

“We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”

“Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.”

“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.”

Decorative Image

It's not the gear.

Bresson mostly used a Leica and a 50mm lens. I think he also used a 35mm lens at some point. Shooting both color when he had little choice in the matter for publications, but mostly monochrome. Nowadays, I use two cameras, the Leica M(Type 240) with a 35mm f1.4 and a Leica M10 with a 50mm Noctilux lens for all my professional work. I love the 35mm perspective and used it mostly last year. This year I've been using the 50mm more than the 35mm. My point is to learn that perspective instinctually, so you don't have even have to consider if I'm too close or too far from my subjects. I rarely use long telephotos or huge zooms (less distraction and unobtrusiveness). I do not use flash brackets or, well, no flash on a camera. I don't have heavy cameras around my neck. I have been through the whole gear purchasing thing, so I'm no angel, but step back for a moment before putting down that plastic. Do you need the latest flash gun, the latest Nikon SLR? My point is, Bresson just had a Leica and a 50mm most of the time. How refreshing. I've learned to just use my feet back and forth vs. using a zoom. This makes the images look interesting and dynamic. The perspective shifts and opens up your mind with the prime lenses. You also have the benefit of more light hitting your sensor and often a sharper image. Learn the craft first. Be absorbed about 'life' and photographing more than your gear.

Be patient

Sometimes the moment happens and it would be incredible to catch every single moment. Of course, that's not always possible. Bresson has taught me that with patience, you can get the shot you want. I used to put myself under insane pressure about not missing the shot. After purchasing this fantastic book, Magnum's 'Contact Sheets' I realized that some of the most famous photographs were captured by working the scene. There are three types of shooting methods. Anticipation or the foresight to is one of the most powerful tools. Henri Cartier-Bresson said you have to be ready and waiting for the moment to happen but be unobtrusive. He explained that sometimes you might have to wait for all the elements to come together before pressing the shutter. Confrontation is another tool you might use instead of waiting for the peak moment. As soon as the subject looks at the camera is when you take the image. The other, a random approach can be holding the camera at hip level for example, something that I started doing with street photography before I had the courage to hold the camera to my eye. Use your instincts when the moment happens, all the while remaining unobtrusive with good timing. VIEW THE MAGNUM WEBSITE
Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Final Words

As you read these quotes, you can see how this relates to wedding photography. Weddings can be super stressful, full of action, peak moments, anticipation and reacting to moments. My approach has always been to shoot with purpose, rather than rattling off frames hoping for one shot. Learn the craft and your equipment with your eyes closed. Go meet other photographers, workshops, exhibitions. If you've never shot a wedding, second shoot and see if you like it. Be humble. Learn from others. Maintain consistency in your work. Trust yourself and be open minded to your surroundings and subjects. I'm a work in progress, even after 21 years shooting professionally. I have a healthy ego, and like any photographer worth their salt, the creative process takes us on an endless journey.
Wedding photography is challenging. You have to really love it to do it well and to make a profit. Every wedding season, I choose one fundamental part of my process how I'm going to improve my craft. What's yours going to be?