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Legends of Photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on August 22, 1908 in Chanteloup, France. His education in Paris was a part of his early development in arts and literature. Cartier-Bresson purchased his first 35mm Leica in 1929 and dedicated the rest of his life to photography. Although he studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Emile Blanche, photography inspired him to stop painting and to become one of the leading artistic forces of the 20th century photography.

His approach upon photography influenced many photographers and his beliefs inspired the sense of art in photography. And according to him what is photography?

“Photography is, for me, a spontaneous impulse coming from an ever attentive eye which captures the moment and its eternity.”

In order to understand better his quote we have to study his work and the way he actually created all of his masterpieces.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

In his interview with Charlie Rose, he is asked if he considers himself an artist. He simply answered:

“I am just a human being. Anybody sensitive is an artist.”

This is a proof that Cartier-Bresson was remarkably humble and his work is characterized by unselfishness and humility. Moreover, when he was asked how he captured this popular photograph with the strange shapes and shadows, the photo that according to Time magazine is “The Photo of the Century”, simply replied:

“There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped. The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason why the picture is cut off on the left”

And this example is important to understand that his philosophy was that 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. This is what we call in “Bresson’s language” the Decisive Moment in photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The above photo, entitled as “Children Playing in Ruins”, was taken by Bresson in Seville in 1933. This photo is one more example to understand his technique. For him the perfect recipe for mastering a photo is the concentration on shooting, the discipline to capture a great moment, your instinct and a sense of geometry, composing your photograph with the right elements. If you see a great scene don’t just take a single photo. Take as many images as your scene actually allows you, as Bresson did, if we consider his contact sheets.

Magnum contact sheets

“A contact sheet is a little like a psychoanalyst’s casebook. It is also a kind of seismograph that records the moment. Everything is written down, whatever has surprised us, what we’ve caught in fight, what we’ve missed, what has disappeared, or an event that develops until it becomes an image that is sheer jubilation. Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.”

In conclusion, Bresson, as a skilled photographer, knew that time is important when you have to close your shutter and capture the moment. On the other hand, time is your ally when you collect your contact sheet, because only then you can choose the best scene that your camera shot. As he once said:

“...Oh the moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever!”


Bresson, H.C., (1952). The Decisive Moment. Texts and photographs by Cartier-Bresson. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Collections of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Retrieved from

Lubben, K., (2011). Magnum contact sheets. Thanes & Hudson.


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