An Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson from 1958
It’s no longer 1958: the imaging technology has, of course, moved on. But when a titanic figure representing the history of an evolving art form speaks, the changes in technology seem kind of irrelevant. This interview with legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is so full of valuable nuggets, you’re gonna want to bring along a burlap sack to collect ‘em all.
In case you’re rolling your eyes at this point (“Oh, wow, my favorite, another interview with a has-been photographer”), allow us to share the statement he makes right out of the starting gate: “To me, photography is a simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of a significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of form which gives that event its proper expression.” Hmm, what could he mean by ‘form’? He is not long in telling us: “By form, I mean a rigorous geometrical organization of interplay of surfaces, lines and values.”
Feel properly chastened, smartie-pants? The guy’s a heavy hitter. He combines an acute aesthetic sensibility with philosophical insight and an industry-defining catalog, the result being a great deal of photographic smartz. You must listen to him. You will listen to him. It will be ten minutes thoroughly well spent. Here, let us help.
As you cannot but have observed, if you just now watched the video…well, there wasn’t much to watch, now was there. It’s actually a sound recording that was released on an LP released in 1958, called Famous Photographers tell How, in which Henri Cartier-Bresson was featured along with seven other photographers. You can still dig up copies of the original record here and there in online boutiques.
Cartier-Bresson was first of all a storyteller in film, considered by many to be the father of photojournalism and a master of candid portraiture. Much of the discussion deals with the subjective dimension of photography: the photographer’s own experience—perspective, intuition, sensibility, body of impressions—engaging with and being shaped by the subject-matter, the result being a vital, visual act of storytelling. Even if (or maybe especially if) you’re not philosophically inclined, there is much to learn from the meandering insights, rendered in Gallic cadences, of this patriarch of 20th century photography. Perhaps his philosophy is best summarized in the statement with which he concludes:
“It’s a question sometimes people put, ‘Which is your favorite picture?’ And I must say the important picture is the next one you’re going to take. We are not curators of our work….Photography is a way of living…. Everything depends on the way we live…our attitude toward life. What we are, in fact.”
And for an eye-opening stroll through history, check out his [Portraits section at Magnum].