Masters of Photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson and "The Velvet Hand and The Hawk's Eye"
It almost seems sacrilegious to post a colour photo of the man who shot exclusively in black & white, but perhaps this provides a good contrast. Undoubtedly, Henri Cartier-Bresson is the most famous street photographer in the world. Undoubtedly, he is
I originally wanted to write a piece on Henri Cartier-Bresson but during my research I stumbled upon Joanne Maguire and her wonderful HCB research project.
Quite simply, I couldn’t have written anything better so I have decided to post her text here instead. I hope she does not mind me doing so, but it is more out of tribute to her dedication and skill than anything else. (Joanne Maguire)
As a young boy, Cartier-Bresson owned a Box Brownie, using it for taking holiday snapshots; he later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was raised in a traditional French bourgeois fashion, required to address his parents using the formal vous rather than the familiar tu. His father assumed that his son would take up the family business, but the youth was strong-willed and upset by this prospect.
He attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students to attend Lycée Condorcet. The proctor caught him reading a book by Rimbaud or Mallarmé, and reprimanded him: “Let’s have no disorder in your studies!” Cartier-Bresson said, “He used the informal ‘tu’-which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on: ‘You’re going to read in my office.’ Well, that wasn’t an offer he had to repeat.”
Experiments with photography
Although Cartier-Bresson gradually began to be restless under Lhote’s “rule-laden” approach to art, his rigorous theoretical training would later help him to confront and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe, but each had a different view on the direction photography should take. The photography revolution had begun: “Crush tradition! Photograph things as they are!” The Surrealist movement (founded in 1924) was a catalyst for this paradigm shift. Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. He met a number of the movement’s leading protagonists, and was particularly drawn to the Surrealist movement’s linking of the subconscious and the immediate to their work. The historian Peter Galassi explains:
The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton…approached the street: with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual…The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
Cartier-Bresson matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political environment. He was aware of the concepts and theories mentioned, but could not find a way of expressing this imaginatively in his paintings. He was very frustrated with his experiments and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works.
The Decisive Moment
Cartier-Bresson’s, The Decisive Moment, the 1952 US edition of Images à la sauvette. The book contains the term “the decisive moment” now synonymous with Cartier-Bresson: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”
Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi’s funeral in India in 1948 and the last (1949) stage of the Chinese Civil War. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People’s Republic. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing, as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he went on to Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where he documented the gaining of independence from the Dutch.
“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. “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,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Cartier-Bresson spent more than three decades on assignment for Life and other journals. He traveled without bounds, documenting some of the great upheavals of the 20th century — the Spanish civil war, the liberation of Paris in 1944, the 1968 student rebellion in Paris, the fall of the Kuomintang in China to the communists, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Berlin Wall, and the deserts of Egypt. And along the way he paused to document portraits of Camus, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound and Giacometti. But many of his most renowned photographs, such as Behind the Gare St. Lazare, are of ordinary daily life, seemingly unimportant moments captured and then gone.
Cartier-Bresson was a photographer who hated to be photographed and treasured his privacy above all. Photographs of Cartier-Bresson do exist, but they are scant. When he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he held a paper in front of his face to avoid being photographed.
Cartier-Bresson exclusively used Leica 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with normal 50 mm lenses or occasionally a wide-angle for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera’s chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white films and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph almost by stealth to capture the events. No longer bound by a huge 4×5 press camera or an awkward medium format twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called “the velvet hand [and] the hawk’s eye.” He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as “[i]mpolite…like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand.”
He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Indeed, he emphasized that his prints were not cropped by insisting they include the first millimetre or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area resulting, after printing, in a black border around the positive image.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color. He disliked developing or making his own prints. He said: “I’ve never been interested in the process of photography, never, never. Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing.”
He started the tradition of testing new camera lenses by taking photographs of ducks in urban parks. He never published the images but referred to them as ‘my only superstition’ as he considered it a ‘baptism’ of the lens.
Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the art world’s most unassuming personalities. He disliked publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Although he took many famous portraits, his own face was little known to the world at large (which presumably had the advantage of allowing him to work on the street in peace). He dismissed others’ applications of the term “art” to his photographs, which he thought were merely his gut reactions to moments in time that he had happened upon.
The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization 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.
Henri Cartier is one of my favorite photographers, mostly because he tried to shoot everything as naturally as possible, he didn’t believe in editing his photos. He was know for catching the decisive moment, what ever it may have been at the time. This photo below is one of his most blunt photos.
When i first saw this photo I asked how Henri could just let it happen but i don’t know if he lived or died, I know most photographers don’t realize what they are seeing because they are looking at it through a lens, it feels like a different reality, but as someone just looking at the photo sees Pain, Anger, Why, How, Truth. I find this with all of Henri’s photos, he makes you ask questions and want to know what really happen and find out the story.
A picture says a thousand words, but which words?