* “Master Profiles” is a series profiling all the great photographers of uncontrolled life. Unlike the rest of the blog, I’m doing these in a straight profile format to make it easy for quick access to facts, quotes and knowledge on all the masters. I’ll also group them together here every time I add a new one.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
French photographer considered by many to be the father of photojournalism. A pioneer of 35mm film and the master of candid photography.
Born: August 22, 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France
Henri’s father was a wealthy textile manufacturer and his mother’s family had found success in the cotton industry. This wealth gave Henri a privileged childhood growing up in Paris and Normandy. It also supported him financially to pursue photography freely.
He was first interested in painting and attended a private art school under Cubist painter Andre Lhote. He credits this to teaching him “photography without a camera.” Henri was most drawn to the Surrealist movement and finding the extraordinary out of the ordinary in photography.
After this, he studied at Cambridge and conscripted in the French Army where his relationship with photography deepened. After seeing the photograph titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkacsi, he said, “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment.”
Cartier-Bresson soon acquired a Leica camera with 50mm lens and traveled around Europe photographing candid moments in the streets. He befriended Hungarian photographer Robert Capa and started getting some of his work published and exhibited.
When World War II broke out in 1939, he joined the French Army again. He was soon captured by German soldiers and put in prisoner-of-war camps for almost 3 years.
After the war ended, he dug up his buried Leica and went back to shooting the streets. In 1947, with Robert Capa and a few others, he founded the now famous Magnum Photos.
For more than three decades, Cartier-Bresson traveled and documented life and major events on assignment and for his personal work. From the Spanish civil war to the assassination of Gandhi to the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was there to photograph it.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work has now put him at the top of most photographer’s lists when it comes to photojournalism and street photography. He is most famous for not only coining the term the “decisive moment,” but also defining it with his work.
- Candid, unobtrusive
- Wait for the “decisive moment”
- See photography like a painter
- Composition and geometry is key
- One lens only, 50mm
- No cropping
Leica M3 with collapsible 50mm Summicron
This was his preferred set-up for most of his life. He started with a Leica II and III with a collapsible Elmar 50mm before switching. He also used a collapsible Zeiss Sonnar 50mm at times. A Leica 35mm rangefinder and normal 50mm lens were always his tools of choice.
Cartier-Bresson didn’t believe in using flash and famously liked to wrap black tape around his camera’s body to make it less conspicuous. He is also one of the original purists that insisted in never cropping his prints, relying completely on composing in the viewfinder.
Robert Capa, David Seymour
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”
“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”
“The picture is good or not from the moment it was caught in the camera.”
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
“A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”
He had a tradition of testing out new camera lenses by taking photos of ducks in urban parks. These were never published, but he called them a ‘baptism’ of the lens and his only ‘superstition.’
It doesn’t get any more famous than Henri Cartier-Bresson in this genre of photography so tell me what you all think about him in the comments below! Do you have any favorite shots? Does his work impact you as much as others?