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When it comes to term ‘Street Photography’, the first name came up in mind is Henri-Cartier-Bresson. The pioneer of street photography, some says the father of street photography. He was born on August 22, 1908, in French and died on August 3, 2004. Henri Cartier-Bresson is mostly known for his ‘Decisive Moments’.

When I first get chance to know him through the web (I wish I could meet him face to face), I was too much influenced by his works. In fact, still I am inspired by his fascinating works. I always thought, how he manages to capture such perfect moment every time. What is the secret behind his work? How does he compose and how he thinks when to shoot? Although he shoots with Leica and I’m not, wish I had a Leica and shoot some great shoot like him.

I start digging more about him in the web and try to read and analysis his works. Initially I was so much fascinated about his concept of “the decisive moment”, especially how does he capture the exact moment perfectly. After studying his works I learn that he didn’t capture only one photo of a moment. He always tries to take as much as photo he could, sometimes he captures 15+ photos and choose the best one. That gives me a lot of inspiration and relief.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the first photographer who inspired me come to street photography and I learn a lot from him. In this article I’m going to share some of my learning from the legend Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Note: All photographs used in this article are copyright by Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos  

1. Give some meaning to the world through photograph

In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry– it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

In this statement Henri Cartier-Bresson has cleared many things. You cannot be a just visitor of the moment rather you need to be emotionally attached and sometime involve personally with the moment. Also, you need to be concentrate while capture the moment; you cannot get distracted with anything. Distraction will ruin your thoughts and your sensitivity and sense of composition you want to comply.

Another important point came up in this statement is “simplicity of expression”. If you watch most famous photographs of Cartier-Bresson, you will see most of them are kind of minimalist. Henry Cartier-Bresson always give meaning with a simple way rather than complexity like Alex Webb. Simplicity is the best way to communicate with mass people.  Also, you have to be respectful to your subject.  Unless you create a connection with your subject, you cannot feel the moment with your heart. Henri Cartier-Bresson always prefer to connect emotionally with his subject. That’s one of his secret to capture great moments in my opinion.

There is another statement I should mention here regarding “giving meaning with photograph”

Manufactured or staged photography does not concern me. And if I make a judgment it can only be on a psychological or sociological level. There are those who take photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson does not like staged photography, He always strives for candid moment. He shoots so many portraits of different types of people including famous people and they ware aware being photographed but, Cartier-Bresson does not interested by those images rather he was interested more to capture candid photograph.

 What I learn:

Cartier-Bresson always search for something that gives some meaning to the world with a simple way and he emotionally feel what he capture. I think this is what makes him different and unique from others.

2. The decisive moment

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.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

I think this is the best statement about decisive moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson when he asked in an interview with The Washington Post in 1957.  But the actual statement that force me to go deep is:

To take photographs means to recognize– simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that gives it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Every second, there is something happening around us, therefore recognize those moment needs to act quickly and simultaneously within a fraction of second. Henri Cartier-Bresson was very much clear about that. Without recognize those continuous happening, you cannot capture the perfect moment. Not only recognize, you also need to perceive that moment with visual art or form or you can say composition and feel the emotion. When all those facts align in a single line, this is the moment you press the shutter and this will be a great decisive moment.

I know this is not an easy task to do, It needs practice and improve your intuition and skill to act quickly as the moment happens. But the interesting thing if you see the ‘Contact Sheet’ of Henri Cartier-Bresson, you will find that he does not capture one image when he saw something interesting and meaningful, rather he worked on the scene and capture as much as he can, sometimes he shoots 15-20 images in a single spot for one perfect moment that gives the meaning.

What I learn:

Decisive moments are everywhere around us. So, as quickly you understand the moment, know the moment and the emotion of the moment with a perfect visual form, you are become better. That needs to carry and ready the camera always.

3. Eliminate and subtract/ minimalism

Things-As-They-Are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything. It is essential to cut from the raw material of life– to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

If you see the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, you will find majority of his work is simple, minimalist. He always prefer to compose his image without any distracting elements. But this is not the only thing Henri Cartier-Bresson mean here. I think he told something more than just to subtract the distracting element only.

See, Henri Cartier-Bresson how mention, “It is essential to cut from the raw material of life– to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination.” It is important to understand what is important or not. Not only within viewfinder but also after the photo has been taken.

There are two phases where you can cut/subtract. One is before capture, while compose the shoot and another one is after capture the photo, while editing.

When Henri Cartier-Bresson finds an interesting moment, he works on the scene and took as much as photo he could get. He waits for different gesture, emotional perspective and try to stay as long as possible to capture maximum photos. This way he can subtract unnecessary random elements that appear in the frame.

After shooting those photos it still needs to subtract in editing phase. Look at the contact sheet where Cartier-Bresson choose the best one among many photos on the same place. I think this is the most difficult stage where you eliminate your own creation. You might emotionally attached with your images. Those photos might have interesting backstories that connect with your feelings.

What I learn:

Subtraction is hard but essential in both before and after capture the images. Work on the scene is very much important to get the perfect image. You never know what will come next. If you satisfy with your shoot, wait for more and who know you could find much better images than before. In this digital era you can capture as much as you wish in your memory card and you have the flexibility to remove cliché, bad images later in the editing stage.

4. Knowing what to photograph

Every street photographer faces this challenge while shooting in the street. What to photograph and what to not. I too often get confused and trolled when I saw a moment. Should I take it or leave it? That’s normal. See, there are so many happening around us all the time and every bit of second there is something new to capture. It’s like an infinity task for street photographers.

There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson very cleverly gave us some thoughts. Your photograph is your perspective to see the world. Its like a personal universe you created. We all have, just we need to realize that. Therefore, it’s important to realize our personal universe and be honest with ourselves, and shoot what we feel.

Taking an image is not just a moment you freeze with your camera. It’s a universal language to communicate with others. Therefore, you need to understand the facts around you and you need to communicate with your heart with reality in your own perspective. That way you will achieve visually impact in your photographs with the world. Cartier-Bresson also said:

Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Another misconception we face sometimes while shooting in the street is, we overlook small detail or small moment. Cartier-Bresson was very much interested in small detail, he never overlooked or leave if the moment is small. Even a small gesture or expression could become a great photograph. He said:

In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

What I learn:

As your photograph represents you and your perspective to see the world, shoot that you feel and how you feel. Understand how the moment connects with your heart, and what is it tells to you. No matter how small it is and wherever it is. Shoot with your personal interest. Even it could be in the street in front your house which you are seeing from your childhood. It seems boring but trust me; it’s not. You don’t have to travel different cities, country to capture great street photograph. It could be in your own area where you grew up. That doesn’t mean you should not travel different places, It just not the obvious thing you need to consider in term of taking good photographs. Just see what feels you fascinating, trust your heart and your artistic soul that leads you to capture.

5. About Composition

Ahh, most interesting part of photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson was very much fascinated about composition on his photography as he was a painter before he starts photography. Composition should guide the viewer’s eye to the subject in a form that you created. Cartier-Bresson said:

 

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Composition what makes the photo talk, it connects all the elements with the subject/moment and create a story. It’s like a rhythm of relationship of various forms that you established. Therefore, composition must be intentional and well formed. Cartier-Bresson continues sharing:

 

We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Composition in street photography is a bit tricky because of constantly movement of the subject. You need to be patience and quick to realize the elements comes together in right place and capture the perfect moment. Cartier-Bresson said:

But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

As the subject moves simultaneously, you also need to move and find the perfect perspective, Cartier-Bresson called it “perpetually evaluate”. In the street, photographers are evaluate every moment and find the moment in right perspective, even changing a step could make a lot difference in composition in terms of meaningful photograph.

 

The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail– and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

So, in the street, don’t just shoot from your eye level always, try to change perspective and change your position. That will change your whole composition, and you might find something new or more interesting.

Another tricky part on composition is ‘cropping’. Henri Cartier-Bresson does not like cropping at all.

If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.– Henri Cartier-Bresson

If you think you can crop your frame later on post-processing (which most of us think nowadays) stage, you might miss the real essence of the image. I like the theme of not-cropping, it gives me to concentrate more on composition on the spot and that definitely help me to understand, realize, feel the emotion of the subject better. I don’t say never crop, sometimes we also need to crop a bit for better result, but that is rear case, not common issue if you compose your frame correctly.

What I learn:

Composition is everything in photography, not only you connect the elements within the frame by composition, you also connect the viewer’s eye with your composition. It seems difficult initially, but trust me, practicing more and watching good photographs you can improve your composition level day by day.

Conclusion:

Street photographers are always strives for more, Cartier-Bresson was very much emotionally attached by his works but he never get satisfied, instead he prefer to look for more better images. He always looks for more greatness. If you took good images and become satisfied, you would never find better, you will stuck in that place.

Also, he never develops his images by himself, but he knows how to develop very well. He prefers to spend more time on shooting, not in darkroom, so, he send his works to someone he trust who developed his work for him. Nowadays, in digital era, we have so many tools to post-process our works, and we spend most of time on Lightroom/Photoshop instead of spending more time in the street. But we should spend less time on post-processing.

Henri Cartier-Bresson taught me so many things, not only in photography, but also, how to see the world and how to feel every happening around us. This article is not enough to share you all my learning for Cartier-Bresson, It just a tiny bit of water drop from an ocean. If I have to sum up this article by one sentence, I would say:

Always be ready and look around you, feel the emotion of all happening, wait for the perfect moment, and look by your heart, your curiosity and shoot more.

 

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