Henri Cartier-Bresson Photography Philosophy

Henri Cartier-Bresson: the godfather of all contemporary photography and street-documentary-reportage photography:

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Basic history: HCB was born of a wealthy family, was into the Surrealist art movement, and picked up photography as a way for him to create “instant sketches” of life.

His first epic book was called “The Decisive Moment“, and was described by his friend and fellow Magnum Photos collective founder Robert Capa as “a Bible for photographers.” The book was originally called, ‘Images à la Sauvette’ (“images on the run”) in the French, the book was published in English with a new title, The Decisive Moment.

His book starts with quote by Cardinal de Retz:

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”

We must create relationships between forms in the photograph

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of forms must be rigorously established.

In the real world and real things, there is a certain rhythm behind things. What does your eyes see as interesting or important in the real world? Your camera simply records what your eyes find significant, important, and beautiful:

Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.

Composition as coordination of elements as seen by the eye, with quickness and intuition

We look and perceive a photograph as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.

Composition can’t be discovered afterwards, we must integrate it during the photo making process.

Balance your elements in your frame

In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment on the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance.

Photography to seize the moment, and immortalize the equilibrium of forms inside it

Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.

Always evaluate scenes with your eyes

The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail – and it can be subordinated, or it can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.

Move your head a millimeter, modify perspectives with bending your knees. Put your camera closer or further from your subject. Compose reflexively.

Wait before the decisive moment

Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing.

If you have a feeling something interesting is about to happen, just wait! But sometimes there are small things missing.

But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something.

Analyze your photos after you shot them:

Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace it on the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.

Trace the geometric elements you find interesting on your photos afterwards.

iPad default screenshot traces

Capture the significance of events, and organize forms to give it emotion and expressions!

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 its proper expression.


Henri Cartier-Bresson 1933 SPAIN. Madrid.
Henri Cartier-Bresson 1933
SPAIN. Madrid.

“A good photograph is made when the inner vision behind the closed eye corresponds with the vision of the open one behind the viewfinder in the moment of pressing the button.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Learn from the master, Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Henri Cartier-Bresson Videos