Photo by Maurizio Zanetti (Creative Commons)
Photo by Maurizio Zanetti (Creative Commons)

Editor’s Note: Each weekend we take a look at a photographer of influence who’s helped shape our industry. This week’s article is an updated version of one by Scott Bourne.

Henri Cartier-Bresson lived from 1908 until 2004. He was considered by many to be the father of street photography. He specialized in a photo journalistic style using 35mm cameras at a time when many of his contemporaries were using view cameras.

He set the standard for “reportage.” He thought of photography as a way of life. For almost five decades he used a camera to document life with a camera – but he thought of the camera as a version of painting – which he studied as well.

While much has been written about Bresson, I still find young photographers who have never heard of the master. He’s worth study. In my own personal experience – looking at his approach to photography, I learned a few things.

Bresson was interested in getting to the action. He traveled the world in search of stories that mattered and was in the middle of some of the biggest stories of his time. Whether it was Africa or the liberation of France during WWII, Bresson made it his business to go places for his photographic endeavors.

He didn’t think about photography as art so much as simple expression of truth. He often spoke badly of “artists” such as Ansel Adams and preferred a journalistic style that counted more on capturing what was happening rather than making it pretty. This has set up what is now the classic division between the masters – those who considered themselves artists and those who considered themselves truth tellers. The battle rages even today.

One of Bresson’s most interesting (and perplexing) quotes was “Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

I have to admit that I have pondered that statement for years, moving from point to point – trying to understand it. I’ve concluded he meant that getting the shot right (and true) in the camera was his highest calling. He didn’t do his own printing. He spent all his time looking for a chance to use the camera. It’s a very different approach than that taken by others who pursued modern art photography.

Bresson was also big on talking about the picture not the camera. He primarily used a Leica 35mm camera with a 50mm lens for almost all his images. He would immediately be hated in every camera forum now available because he would make fun of those who talk about and contemplate gear rather than vision. He would see that as a complete waste of time. He’d rather be shooting.

All that said, the two biggest lessons I’ve learned from my study of Bresson are:

  1. The precise moment is more important than the event where the moment takes place.
  2. The subject of the photo is always more important than the hobby, craft, science or art of photography.

Bresson was interested in life – it was simply the fact that he used a camera to capture it that made him famous. You could learn a great deal by studying this man. And I hope you do.


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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. […] Henri Cartier Bresson | A Photographer You Should Know ( […]

  2. […] While in college (a pursuit he never completed), Eggleston was introduced to photography.  A friend gave him a Leica camera.  His earliest influences were Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank and French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. […]

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