Previously, we brought you some lessons from photography masters Ansel Adams and Robert Capa. This month, it's all about the words of wisdom from respected street photographer and photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Imagine that you’re an aspiring photojournalist some 50 years ago, knocking on the doorstep of Henri Cartier-Bresson and seeking the tutelage of the French photography master. He agrees, asks you to come in and sit down, then, without batting an eyelash, gives you your first lesson:
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
Will you still push through with the apprenticeship? I bet you will, as every hopeful photographer out there would give anything for a chance to learn from no other than the father of modern photojournalism, and a master of street photography.
Cartier-Bresson’s influence has spanned many generations, his photographic style and noteworthy photos still highly-lauded to this day. However, before establishing a celebrated career in photography, he was also once a painter who sought to combine the classics with modern art. Cartier-Bresson passed away in 2004, but has remained one of those artists that all of us strive to become.
Now, for your regular dose of photography inspiration, we bring you some of the best lessons from Henri Cartier-Bresson himself:
On taking photos
To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.
Memory is very important, the memory of each photo taken, flowing at the same speed as the event. During the work, you have to be sure that you haven’t left any holes, that you’ve captured everything, because afterwards it will be too late.
The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.
To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.
Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick. So, if you miss the picture, you’ve missed it. So what?
As far as I am concerned, taking photographs is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality. It is a way of life.
On portraits and photographs
In a portrait, I’m looking for the silence in somebody.
The picture is good or not from the moment it was caught in the camera.
The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.
He made me suddenly realize that photographs could reach eternity through the moment.
As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.
On photography itself
I’m not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It’s drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, and then sniff, sniff, sniff – being sensitive to coincidence. You can’t go looking for it; you can’t want it, or you want get it. First you must lose your self. Then it happens
Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important.
Photography appears to be an easy activity; in fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is in the instrument.
Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.
In photography, the smallest thing can become a big subject, an insignificant human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and we make seen as a witness to the world around us; the event, in its natural activity, generates an organic rhythm of forms.
Looking for more words of inspiration and wisdom from our photography masters? Why don’t you check out all Lessons from Photography Masters articles so far!