The Greats: How Henri Cartier-Bresson Captured Candid Moments

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The mantle of street and candid photography has been carried forward by a host of brilliant photographers. But its starting point can be traced back to Henri Cartier-Bresson. Based on what he called ‘The Decisive Moment’, his thoughtful political and social commentary was carefully presented within precisely framed geometric landscapes. Today, his images still signpost how to capture expressive scenes that are otherwise lost in an instant.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The term ‘master’ gets bandied about a lot these days, but it certainly applies to someone with the enduring influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Born in 1908 to a wealthy Parisian family, Henri was immersed in bourgeois culture from an early age. But it was painting, not photography, that first captured his imagination, as he attended art school to study Cubism. It was here that he gained an early education on structure and composition.

But Cartier-Bresson quickly grew tired of Cubism’s confines. The Surrealist movement had caught his attention, while he also developed an interest in photojournalism, inspired by early figures such as Robert Capa and Martin Munkacsi. It was the combination of these two creative pillars that led Cartier-Bresson to pursue photography, eventually leading to a collection of work that’s considered some of the most influential ever captured.

Siphnos by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“He has an undeniable talent for framing movement within the built environment’s lines and shadows.”

The Decisive Moment

Inspired by Surrealism’s attempts to express our subconscious ideas, Cartier-Bresson used a Leica Rangefinder and a 50mm lens to capture the intrinsic nature of people and places around the globe. Although he had long ditched Cubist painting, the techniques he learned were imperative to developing his distinctive style. The central Cubist concept of the ‘objective chance’ – serendipitous and incompatible moments that intertwine to create poetic insights – undoubtedly contributed to the development of his revolutionary concept and 1953 photobook of the same name, The Decisive Moment. Broadly, this concept can be described as the capturing of spontaneous moments, which reflect the true essence of what took place.

Featuring 126 images captured throughout trips to China, India and an array of European cities, The Decisive Moment demonstrates Cartier-Bresson’s love of geometry and composition. He has an undeniable talent for framing movement within the built environment’s lines and shadows, conveying poignant social, political and ironic messages following the upheaval of WWII in an artful way.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Rue Mouffetard by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

How to Shoot Candid Moments Like Cartier-Bresson

Calm and sharp-eyed, Cartier-Bresson would often find the perfect scene and wait for an actor to wander into it. This devotion to capturing an image worthy of the setting saw Cartier-Bresson sit patiently, not wanting to disturb the scene and those around it. Agnes Sire, director of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, explained: “He would say that a fisherman would never throw a stone where he wants to catch a fish in the river. You have to do the exact same thing with photography.”

So how do you capture this elusive ‘decisive moment’ in your own work? Here are a few tips for photographing the candid flashes in time that matter most.

“A fisherman would never throw a stone where he wants to catch a fish in the river.”

Hyeres by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
1. BE PATIENT

An early flâneur with a camera, Cartier-Bresson roamed the streets in search of the decisive moment. When he arrived at a location that struck his imagination, he waited patiently for life to spring across his frame.

In your own work, once you find a setting that includes the shapes, lines and colours that you’re looking for, wait for an interesting action to occur. You should either linger or return at different times of the day because the ideal moment might not come straight to you. Shot in 1932, Hyères, France illuminates Cartier-Bresson’s uncanny ability to link a visually pleasing setting with a fleeting moment, as a cyclist raced through his frame.

“Cartier-Bresson would remain inconspicuous by covering the shiny chrome of his Leica with black tape.”

Coronation of King George VI by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
2. STAY LOW-KEY

Across most of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, there’s an evocative sense of quiet observation. Similar to a photojournalist, he would often keep out of the way and simply treat the camera as an extension of his eye. This was due to his understanding that the most appealing candid images are created when the subject is completely unaware they are being photographed. Cartier-Bresson would remain inconspicuous by covering the shiny chrome of his Leica with black tape or even with a handkerchief.

If you’re shooting on the street or at an event, try and blend into the setting. Whether that means staying on the edge of the scene or by wearing clothes that don’t draw attention, shooting without making a point of your presence is key to producing images that capture the moment, decisively.

Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
3. AVOID POST-PROCESSING

Cartier-Bresson believed that post-processing his film should be a last resort. On the rare occasion that he did send his images to be cropped or altered, he entrusted a select few to handle the developing for him, leaving him with more time and energy to go shoot. In part, this principle came from Cartier-Bresson’s desire to directly engage only with his camera and the scene he had chosen. He also believed that photographers could nurture their talent by regularly reflecting on their work, while paying close attention to their contemporaries and related mediums like sculpture and painting.

Post-processing is an important skill for present-day photographers. But it’s great practice to try and capture the ideal image when you first press the shutter, rather than relying on Photoshop later. As Cartier-Bresson regularly expressed, the most unique attribute of photography is how it “fixes a precise moment in time.” Keep this in mind when you next head out for a shoot, as you set about recreating the true essence of your scene. Keep this in mind when you next head out for a shoot.

“The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimetres – small, small differences.”

Roman Amphitheatre by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
4. FOCUS ON GEOMETRY

Cartier-Bresson’s work is so effective not just because of the decisive moments seen through people, but through his ability to combine them with the surrounding landscape. Framing around natural geometry is one technique you should be using to enhance your images.

Across the vast majority of Cartier-Bresson’s images, vertical and horizontal lines intersect with curves and shadows, framing the subject and providing a natural focal point for the audience. Cartier-Bresson described geometry as his single greatest joy, suggesting that when everything appears in the correct order, the resulting image is an intellectual pleasure of structure and pattern.

Pay attention to your surroundings and train yourself to recognise the obscure shapes that make up the world. Techniques like the rule of thirds and the golden ratio are useful guidelines you can use to create visually pleasing images. Once you combine these elements with the right subject, you’ll have a striking photograph. As Cartier-Bresson described: “The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimetres – small, small differences – but it’s essential.”

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2020-04-05T23:41:14+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |