I have not read another photographer/author that could articulate quite so well as Henri Cartier-Bresson what it takes to see and capture great photography. Reading The Mind’s Eye I felt like I was transported back in time and had a conversation with Cartier-Bresson about life, passion, and photography.
* I’ll be using HCB instead of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s full name for any reason that sounds better than I’m just too lazy to keep typing it out.
In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder.
The book is broken down into three parts: The Camera As Sketchbook, Time And Place, On Photographers and Friends. Each part is then broken into smaller chapters; five, four, and 15 respectively. Finally, the section most people skip in books (yeah, you!)… Acknowledgments and Bibliography.
Admittedly, the section on Photographers and Friends was of little interest to me but that’s purely subjective. You may love that section.
The book is an easy read, it’s only about 107 pages long (not counting the fluff pages) and it’s not written in old English or some other Shakespearean gibberish that you’d need another book to help you decipher. I read the English version of the book so your mileage may vary if you read a different translation.
I’ve heard that when you make a photograph it’s made up of more than the subjects within the frame, a part of you is in each photograph you create. This is how Cartier-Bresson’s The Mind’s Eye is written, you get a long hard look at who the man was and how he saw the world. Photography aside, HCB was an insightful world traveler who would probably give the Dos Equis guy a run for the money when it comes to “The Most Interesting Man In The World”.
What becomes evident in the first twenty or so pages is that Henri Cartier-Bresson was less worried about his camera or the field of photography. He viewed photography as another tool, like a paint brush, that allowed him to capture the moments he wanted to preserve. The moment was his passion, photography was a means to an end for him.
As you continue to read you get the sense that, although the camera was just a tool for him, he is intrigued by the challenge of composition and processing his photographs, creating photographs that conveyed a story.
The elements which, together, can strike sparks from a subject, are often scattered – either in terms of space or time – and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, contrived.
If I had to describe Cartier-Bresson in regards to Street Photography I would use just one word: Purist. Though I’m sure some Street Photographers would not like his thoughts on things like street portraits, using flash, or arranging scenes (hint: he wasn’t a fan).
Note If your interest is creating more interesting Street Photography or Photojournalism there is a great section all about creating photo stories that makes this book worth every penny.
One of my favorite excerpts from the book relates to composition:
…but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move. In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed – and then it can be used only for a post-mortem examination of the picture.
Often you’ll read about a Street Photographers ability to see these amazing images before they take them but in reality, the majority of the time, photographers are all alike… We take many images and really don’t notice all of the elements we’ve captured until we’ve had a chance to review the image. This thought that a photographer can just one off great shots, one after another, is a fallacy.
Think about it this way, the brain can only process about 200 bytes* of information at a time… Listening to someone speak takes up about 80 of those, that’s why we can only every follow two people talking at the same time. So next time someone tells you they noticed the leading line, the shadow making a geometrical shape, the person looking this way, another looking that way, the dog jumping over a fence, and a child laughing all at the same time in a split second before they pressed the shutter button on their camera you can call their bluff.
* Forgive me if the unit of measurment is off but you get the idea.
On Color Photography
I recently came across a debate where photographers were discussing whether Henri Cartier-Bresson would use a digital camera today if he were alive. After reading his thoughts on color photography, then in its infancy, I would bet this site on yes. HCB didn’t shy away from new technology, he embraced it and encouraged others to see where it led.
But all this is not to say we should take no further interest in the question, or sit by waiting for the perfect color film – packaged with the talent necessary to use it – to drop into our laps. We must continue to try to feel our way.
I was most impressed by Cartier-Bressons understanding of Color Theory… possibly due to his experience with painting. It’s also interesting to note that the difficulties he foresaw are the same difficulties that photographers deal with even today… for instance, the difficulty of achieving accurate colors when printing images.
I can sum up HCB’s thoughts on technique in one quote:
Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see.
On The Man
I am neither an economist nor a photographer of monuments, and even less a journalist. What I am looking for, above all else, is to be attentive to life.
Neither my wife nor myself like to travel by air. You go too fast, you don’t see the gradual changes that take place as you move from one country to the next.
When Cartier-Bresson visited someplace new (Moscow in this case) he knew exactly what he wanted to see, where he wanted to photograph.
I explained that my main interest was in people and that I would like to see them in the streets, in shops, at work, at play, in every visible aspect of daily life, wherever enough goes on so that I could approach them on tip-toes and take my photographs without disturbing them.
Finally, what is Photography?
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event it’s proper expression.
If you’re looking for a book that will help you improve your Street Photography then I’d recommend picking this one up, you can get it off Amazon for less money by hitting the link above.
Have you read a great book about photography lately? Share it in the comments below. Be sure to follow DecisiveShot by entering your email in the box to the right and hitting Subscribe for an alert each time a new article is posted.