6 Lessons Henri Cartier-Bresson Can Teach the Modern Photographer

I love looking in detail at another photographer’s work. To immerse yourself in someone else’s creativity—to see what their ideas spark inside of you, what excites you, what makes you sit up and think ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’—that’s all great fuel for your own photography.

“To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life. ” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

My subject today is Henri Cartier-Bresson. Born in 1908, he was initially drawn to painting before discovering photography (and Leica) at the age of 24. After a spectacular career he started to move away from photography at the age of 60 and spent the rest of his long life focused more on drawing and painting.

Although I can’t ever imagine giving up on photography I really admire it when people take big leaps in their creativity like this. I mean he was a world famous photographer, he could have coasted on that for the next thirty years, but instead he was drawn back to his first love. I aim to be that fearless with my decisions in life. To just go for what moves me, and not what makes most practical sense.

What I love about Cartier-Bresson’s photography is his steadied and almost scientific approach to composition. He had a great feel for shape and form and putting that together into compelling compositions.

He is very much known for his street photography which, as a genre, I often find comes across in a cold, slightly sterile feeling. But I think Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, and his street photography, have a real warmth combined with a concern for humanity.

So here are some things Henri Cartier-Bresson can teach you about photography.

1. Patience

You know what all good photographers have? Patience. You know what almost every person who comes on my workshops needs more of? Patience.

You have to accept that if you want to be a great photographer (or even almost-great… or anywhere above average) you need the ability to not rush the moment. You need to enter into the moment that you are in, be totally present, and let it run as it sees fit, at its own pace. To observe the world around you with no expectation, to drift through the place you are in and resist the temptation to keep moving.

“One minute of patience, ten years of peace.” – Greek proverb

If there’s one thing you could take away from this post that will make your photography instantly better, it’s this: take twice the amount of time looking at your subject than you usually do. Fight your mind and body’s urge to keep moving on.

When you find a scene that interests you, stay put. Explore it, probe it, wait for things to happen. And in general: walk twice as slowly and stay out taking photos for twice as long. And, as Joyce Meyer says:

“Patience is not just about waiting for something… it’s about how you wait, or your attitude while waiting.”

In other words: be patient in your patience, too.

2. Find the perfect expression of your subject

Cartier-Bresson is most famous for coming up with the term “decisive moment.” The term actually came from the English title of his book, which opens with this quote from Cardinal de Retz:

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.” – Cardinal de Retz, 17th Century

There are all kinds of interpretations of the term decisive moment. I like this one from a great article about The Decisive Moment and the Brain:

“The decisive moment refers to capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.”

When you hear the term decisive moment, it can come across as meaning that you wait for that “perfect” moment, then you take a photo, then you move on. But actually Cartier-Bresson worked the scene like most of the rest of us do: he took lots of photos. And from this he would pick a photo that most accurately captured the essence of the situation—a moment that gives the viewer the most information and feeling about the subject.

3. Use your intuition

“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.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

This to me again speaks of shutting off your chatty, work-y, to-do list driven mind and trying to just enter into and exist in the moment when taking pictures. There is a lot that we intuit that we probably don’t acknowledge, so occupied are we at listening to our endless thoughts.

I feel like you need to get out of your mind and into your body—to see what your intuition is noticing about where you are at while ignoring that busy mind of yours.

“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 won’t get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

I like that: you must lose yourself. It’s exactly what I feel when I am in the ‘zone’ or the ‘creative flow state.’ I am losing track of space and time, and just completely immersed in my subject. It doesn’t happen every time I shoot, but I know that when it happens I am getting something very special.

4. The beauty of shape and form

Cartier-Bresson was very into lines and shapes, the organizing and balancing geometry of the world.

“In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry– it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression. One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

I think that about captures it. No need for further explanation.

5. Take the time to reveal your subject

“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.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

This for me perfectly captures what you need to be doing when taking someone’s photo. And this isn’t easy! Taking a portrait for me is about your subject revealing something about themselves or their experience.

It could be through their movement, the expression within their eyes or face – but it has to tell you something about the person or the situation they are in.

Almost everyone (with the exception of young children) have a veneer that they present to the world, and this veneer will harden when you put a camera up in front of them. People are programmed to want to project a certain image – but that image is boring to photograph most of the time.

So what this comes down to (again) is time: spending time with your subject or watching your subject so that they start to relax and reveal something about themselves. You want them to go from feeling consciously looked at, to feeling unconsciously looked at. Because that veneer is hard to maintain, and people will forget about a camera after a while.

And in order to get to that point where people are losing their guard and starting to reveal something interesting about themselves you need to push through the discomfort you are likely going to experience whilst waiting.

It’s weirdly self conscious pointing a camera at someone you aren’t acquainted with for long periods of time. So again, be patient with yourself and move through the discomfort.

It could be that you are just clicking away, having the subject get used to you. Gradually they will. Or talk to them – or watch them if you are shooting them unawares. Wait for those fluttering changes in their face, their eyes. See what they do with their hands, where their eyes turn when their preoccupations come back to occupy their minds.

But then sometimes it’s more interesting to see not what I think of people, or my view, but what they think of themselves and of the world.

6. Don’t be nostalgic about your photos

“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.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

I think a lot of us photographers worry that we aren’t ever going to take a truly original photo. When I visit new cities I certainly worry about that. I mean there are photographers everywhere! (This writer worked out that “Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.”)

I think there is a little bit of nostalgia in wanting to take photos. Life is such a flowing, never stopping act, that to take a photo and halt that process of always changing, always moving on, is to gain a small window of time to stop and reflect. To have an opportunity to stop and breathe.

Photography is a weird dichotomy of being completely present and living in a very rich connected way, and this constant reflecting back on the past. On past moments that you have captured. But Cartier-Bresson was someone who constantly pushed forward and gave very little thought to his earlier photos.

“The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” – Henri Cartier Bresson

I hope this post has inspired you to explore Bresson’s work a bit deeper. A good place to start is the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, set up with his wife Martine Franck (a great photographer in her own right), and his daughter. And as he was one of the co-founders of Magnum.

And, as always, I love hearing what you think, so if you’ve got some thoughts on Cartier-Bresson please comment below. Happy photographing!

About the Author: Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, Photo Magazine, The Guardian and CNN. Each week, he sends out a free newsletter with his very best ideas on how to become a more artistic and creative photographer. Join him on an inspiring journey to bring out the artist in you through the power and joy of photography. This article was also published on anthonyepes.com.

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