Ever since I started with Street Photography there was one name that was inevitable when researching for Street Photographers, Pictures or Inspiration – Henri Cartier-Bresson. Following my interest in learning everything about Street Photography from the early masters like Henri-Cartier Bresson to today’s top Photographers, I couldn’t follow the hype surrounding Bresson.
Almost every article I read or picture analysis I saw showed nothing but praise for his work without any critical voices. Everything he did was lifted on a pedestal that I just don’t understand. From composition where every detail is described as a masterpiece to certain techniques that make his pictures stand out.
Yes, he was a pioneer, some of the first that tried to document the street and therefore he deserves a lot of praise. Yet, I find that his accomplishments are in a way not comparable to other great Photographers like Robert Capa or Gordon Parks. Photographers who explored the world, to tell cohesive stories and remained a legacy of photojournalistic work.
In the following, I want to present a counterstatement to all the appraisal Henri Cartier-Bresson receives and I want to emphasize that it is okay to dislike the work of a certain Photographer although he is highly regarded within the “community”. You should always be able to voice your opinion, but it has to be built on arguments and not pure hate.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Life
As Photography is the representation of one’s personality I want to give a short overview of the life of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Understanding his background makes it easier to comprehend his work and style. In the end, his photographs are the outcome of his life.
Bresson was born 1908 in a small town in France as the son of a wealthy family. Spending his childhood in the Normandie he experimented early on with different cameras.
He was not only into photography but also tried to learn music & painting as forms of art to express himself. It was the passion for painting that he later pursued more seriously and went to a private school where he was a student of André Lhote.
Bresson later stated that the studies of Lhote were like photography without a camera.
Unsatisfied with the artistic direction of the school he experimented with different styles of surrealism.
While being employed in an air squadron, Bresson received his first camera from his friend Harry Crosby in 1929.
After going to the Cote d’Ivoire until 1931 he returned to France, specifically Marseille, bought his first Leica and traveled around Europe documenting life in a metropolis like Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw and many other European cities.
His work gained quick recognition and was exhibited all around the world.
In 1937 he began a more photojournalism approach to his work by photographing coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Besides his changes in photography, he also got into filmmaking where he received minor acting roles.
During World War II, Bresson joined the Photo & Film Unit of the French Army but was captured in June 1940. In 1943 his third escape attempt was successful and with false documents, he could travel to France where he was reunited with his beloved Leica.
Towards the end of the war, he shot a series of returning war refugees which were exhibited in the N.Y.C. Museum of Modern Art.
He then went on to document events like Gandhi’s funeral in 1948 & the Chinese Civil War in 1949. His work was of the nature of a Documentary Photographer and only in 1952 his photography book “The Decisive Moment” which has become the cornerstone work for many Street Photographers.
In his later years, he returned to painting in favor of photography, although he admitted that he already said everything through his photography.
Street Photographs of Cartier-Bresson
The life of Henri Cartier-Bresson has led him to many interesting places and events all over the world. His Documentary Work has been exhibited all over the world and showed different regions at a time, where it was a huge burden to travel and information wasn’t readily available.
Therefore his work wasn’t only valuable from an “art” perspective but also had a very important duty in telling the stories that were happening. From the cruelty of war to the death of persons that coined the century.
Yet, he is most known for his “Decisive Moment” Street Photographs.
I have used the previous picture because it has some interesting leading lines and composition in it. It is an often cited work of Henri Cartier-Bresson when it comes to the “decisive moment” and exceptional Street Photographs in general. It is almost a synonym for Street Photography.
This is an acclaim I can’t really agree with. While this image has a good composition and some movement in it, it lacks the emotional value and a story at all.
As a viewer, there aren’t many details in it besides the bicycle driving around the corner. Other details that would be helpful to tell a story aren’t included in the picture.
It is a good photograph, but for an excellence Street Photograph, there are elements missing that I’d like to see.
The same applies to this picture. There are interesting geometrical elements visible. A half circle formed by the bridge is crossed by the nose of the boat, breaking up the element on the right third of the bridge.
There is also a woman visible that is just passing the bridge that could be an interesting start for a story.
Yet, the picture feels very emotionless and cold.
The next image has more life in it and doesn’t feel that emotionless anymore.
Civil War breaks out in 1936 in Spain and the photograph seen above has been taken in 1933 in Seville. Seeing the rubble and the destroyed wall gives some sort of foreshadowing of the upcoming Civil War.
Although there is a lot going on and the kids have very tensed looks in their faces, the picture doesn’t reach me completely.
The hole in the wall is used as a framing element, but I as the viewer still feel left out. The staggering eye-contact emphasizes that it is not a candid scene anymore, but that the kids behave differently and are very well aware of Bresson.
Staged Photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Then there are also allegations that Bresson’s pictures aren’t just magically capturing the “decisive moment” but that he carefully arranged the scene or gave instructions to his co-workers.
An act that isn’t compatible with Street Photography. Candid photographs show the real life and it can be difficult to capture the decisive moment when you already have found the right background and are just waiting for the person to enter the frame.
It is tedious and requires a lot of patience, but this is a part of being a Street Photographer. Staging images is not an alternative even though they are great photos nonetheless. They aren’t Street Photographs anymore and shouldn’t be coined as that.
For example, the famous bicycle rider shown in the picture at the beginning of this article is likely an assistant of Bresson who was instructed to race the street for a few times to give Henri Cartier-Bresson the opportunity to capture multiple images.
To be fair, at the time Bresson took the image, there wasn’t such thing as a “burst mode” that allowed him to take multiple images in a short sequence, so it is understandable that he did everything to make sure to get the shot he wanted. But that doesn’t justify to stage image without labeling them as such.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for his jump pictures where people either jump over a small puddle. In this case, there is not only the reflection in the puddle of the jumping man but also the poster in the background with a figure having the same stance as the man in the foreground.
What is often taken as an example for the mastermind that he was, is also rumored to be staged to create the same expression in both figures.
Now they aren’t bad pictures because they are staged, but they aren’t Street Photographs anymore. They do not candidly show the life of his time, but rather follow his artistic imagination.
Therefore they shouldn’t be taken as the number one example of the decisive moment and what Street Photography defines. Students that learn about the history of Street Photography for the first time should see these images only as examples to realize how good composition works, but also understand that it is only possible through hard work and dedication to capture those moments.
Bresson stated himself: “Manufactured or staged photography does not concern me”
but I believe it is still important to distinguish between candid shots and manufactured photographs for the documentary value that they possess.
Bresson’s Street Photographs simply don’t touch me, whether staged or not, in my opinion, they lack the emotional value and are very technical.
They are great examples if you want to learn more about composition and the arrangement of subjects, geometry or leading lines, but there is more to a Street Photograph than this.
It feels like Bresson focused too much on the composition and left the life behind in his pictures. Of course, there are technical limitations that make it impossible to compare his work to today’s standards.
Today we are able to get a lot closer because our cameras can be much smaller and we are able to click away hundreds of digital images in no time. But there are examples of this period that captured great emotions.
Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J day for example.
Bresson’s photographs always feel like he tried to copy his painting style into photography. This doesn’t really work for Street Photography, so I see his body of work more as “fine arts” of his time but not as the godfather of Street Photographs as they are often seen.
The Other Side of Henri Cartier-Bresson
Digging deeper into the biography of Bresson I realized that he was more than just a painter born into a rich family. That he was actually an explorer and took great risks for his photography and created great series.
Unfortunately, these remarkable stories are often left out when we hear about Bresson.
His Street Photography doesn’t impress me, but his documentary work and his work ethic surely do.
Unfortunately, his documentary work is overshadowed by all the decisive moments’ claims and his other pictures that make this kind of work easily overlooked.
He created great projects about India and traveled the world at a time where it truly took a lot of dedication and an adventurous spirit to take the risks for the photographs.
Then there also another conclusion I want to draw out of Henri Cartier-Bresson as the founder of the decisive moment.
It often feels difficult to speak against the common perception of artwork and artists/photographers.
When I started Street Photography, there was no doubt, that Bresson was one of the greatest Street Photographers who ever lived and that his pictures are unanimously praised in exhibitions and publications around the world.
Therefore he must have been one of the best and anyone who speaks against it must simply not understand the value of his work.
This is a very dangerous mindset and while there is some truth behind it – some photographer’s work is more “difficult” to understand than others – you should never be afraid to speak your mind.
If you don’t like Robert Frank’s “The Americans” or believe that Bruce Gilden is just a one-trick pony then this is fine.
There is some strange atmosphere in the “art-world” where you might feel excluded because you don’t agree with the common sentiment.
This shouldn’t hold you back from forming your own opinion and voice your arguments. Truth is, there is a lot of irrational circle-jerk in the “art community” when it comes to the value of photographs and you don’t have to participate in it.
Rather go your own way and form your own opinions.
You won’t find happiness by throwing away your own ideals just to feel included in a group which probably doesn’t know what they are talking about anyway.