Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Value of Photography

Lauren Chan 30 January 2019
Image Credit: Mikael Moreira

I’ve always been fascinated by “perfectly taken” photographs. Photos where, seemingly through pure serendipity, the light, shadows, and subject, are in exactly the right place. Today, “perfect photographs”, taken at the “decisive moment”, has become almost synonymous with the works of legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Celebrated as a master of street photography, he was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism, taking iconic snapshots of some of the most defining events of the 20th Century. His small Leica camera brought him around the world, from his home country of France, to China at the end of its civil war, to India after the death of Gandhi, to Soviet Russia, to Mexico…

His emphasis on taking photos at the “decisive moment”, when everything clicks perfectly into place, made his images visually striking and thematically heavy. Despite witnessing some of the most momentous events of the century, Cartier-Bresson shied away from focusing his lens on the larger-than-life characters who made history. Instead, to him, “the smallest thing can be a great subject”. When covering the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, his photos were not of the royal procession, but of the jubilant crowds. To capture intimate moments without people being aware that they were being photographed; he even painted the shiny parts of his small Leica black to make it more discreet.

During an interview with Philippe Boegner in 1989, Cartier-Bresson jokingly said that as a photographer he “behaved like a thief”. He thought a photographer is “somewhere between pickpocket and tightrope walker”, because taking a photo “takes something that belongs to [the subject]: their image, their culture”. Regardless of concerns about this being morally questionable (which is a topic for another day), Cartier-Bresson was successful at capturing the world in its natural state of movement and spontaneity.

Image Credit: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

As influenced by the Surrealist movement, he was drawn not to facts, but rather paid more attention to presenting interesting perspectives out of context. The photograph above, for example, provides little context as to when and where it was taken, creating a wealth of unpredictable meanings open to viewer interpretation. (Note: though it reminds me of some sort of funeral, the photo was actually taken during the 1937 Coronation Procession)

People enjoy imposing meanings onto art. Some, after seeing Cartier-Bresson’s photos, may think that he is making a political statement, that, for example, by photographing the daily lives of Chinese citizens at the end of the Chinese Civil War, he may have had some sort of a political agenda. Some just thought he was being a journalist and recorded things for the way it was.

Image Credit: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

While some may dismiss these interpretations as pure speculation, I think that such varied perspectives are where the value of photography lies. To me, the value of photography, and of art in general, lies with the personal interpretation of the viewer. Cartier-Bresson would agree. When asked about his experience in China, he analogised viewing his photographs to being like wine tasting, where people should look at photos and interpret them based on their personal feelings, rather than being guided by what they think the photographer’s intentions are.

In his words: “Well, I don’t want to say anything. It’s as if you invite someone for dinner and serve wine in a decanter instead of the bottle with the label. People should guess if it’s a good wine. But no, they want to see the label. This is awful. That’s why there shouldn’t be any captions. People should just look. We should awaken our sensitivity. But people don’t. If it’s in a decanter, they won’t dare say it’s a good wine or it’s a bad wine because they haven’t seen the year. They don’t know which chateau.”

Considering Cartier-Bresson’s background in art, having trained under French painter Andre Lhote, some modern viewers may conclude that his photos are works of art. In my opinion it is easy for people to reach that conclusion, because of his obsession over composition and geometries.

He once remarked that he liked to “instinctively fix a geometric pattern” into which a subject fitted in. He therefore approached photography by patiently waiting for the perfect subject to walk into an already precomposed frame. In an interview in 1957 with the Washington Post, he emphasised the importance of “know[ing] with intuition when to click the camera” when the eye sees life offering the perfect composition and expression. Although it is true that his photos are taken “on the run”, as the title of his first photo-book Images à la Sauvette suggests, his photographic style to me seems to be best summarised as being “candidly un-candid”. Though situated within the fluid and dynamic progress of life, his artistic process basically consists of him waiting to construct a painting in real life, in a split second.

So, Cartier-Bresson’s works, with close attention paid to geometry, composition, and light, can be considered art. Yet, is there a difference between photography as an art form, and “taking photos”? Is composing the perfect shot photography? Is taking actual candid photos, where nothing but the moment is important, photography? Or, at the other extreme, can Kim Kardashian taking 6000 selfies in 4 days while on holiday in Mexico be considered photography?

To me, photography is what you make of it.

Photos don’t have to look perfect to be perfect. Photograms, which are photographic prints made without a camera by exposing photosensitive paper to light, are as abstract and obscure as art comes. Photos which aren’t framed perfectly, but capture a smile, a laugh, or a funny face, are perhaps more perfect than a technically correct shot, purely because it captures a memory.

Photos don’t always have to mean something profound. Cartier-Bresson made this very clear: the joy of photography is that it is up for interpretation, it can be anything you like. And, what even is art anyways? This difficult-to-answer question is what makes photography and art so free. There are no definitions, no boundaries, and you can interpret it any way you like. Documenting personal moments with family and friends can certainly be considered art to some people. Art can be capturing beautiful scenery while on holiday, it can be making photograms, it can be creating collages…

Image Credit: Lauren Chan via Huji Cam

Especially in this day and age, photography is anything you want it to be. Those who want the black and white film feel of Cartier-Bresson’s photography, can invest in a disposable camera, a film camera, or, just use apps such as VSCO Cam to edit iPhone photos to their liking; Those who want to take many photos, but still experience the novelty of film photography, can download apps such as Huji or Gudak Cam to replicate the nostalgic effect; Those who wish to take HD photographs to replicate the view from the eyes as closely as possible, can do so with a camera, or even with their phones.

So, photography is a realm of endless possibilities. Photography doesn’t mean anything in itself, it is what you define it to be. In the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson, “you just have to live and life will give you pictures”.