Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Henri Cartier-Bresson's first Leica (model Leica I)
The world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (22 August 19083 August 2004) was a French humanist photographer considered a master of candid photography, and an early user of 35 mm film. He pioneered the genre of street photography, and viewed photography as capturing a decisive moment. He was one of the founding members of Magnum Photos in 1947.


  • The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions. Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search for the solution to the problems it poses — for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving. Sometimes you light upon the picture in seconds; it might also require hours or days. But there is no standard plan, no pattern from which to work.
    • The Decisive Moment (1952), p. i; also in The Mind's Eye (1999)
  • I am a visual man. I watch, watch, watch. I understand things through my eyes.
    • "An island of pleasure gond adrift" in LIFE magazine (15 March 1963), p. 42

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Interviews and Conversations, 1951-1998


Conversation. Interview with Byron Dobell (1957)


This interview, conducted May 24, 1957, was first published as “A Conversation with Henri Cartier-Bresson,” by Byron Dobell, Popular Photography 40, no. 9 (September 1957): 130-32.

  • For me, the great myth is the Greek myth of Antaeus, who had to touch Earth to regain his strength. I know I must always keep in contact with the concrete, concrete reality, the small incident and the small, specific truth, which might have wide reverberations.
    • p. 32
  • I believe creative work needs communication. So it’s extremely encouraging to be with a group of people who form a community and to know that you’re not isolated, although as individuals we must always work in an inner silence.
    • p. 34
  • Nobody at Magnum decides for the other what he should do and everyone is free to tell someone else: “Well, what about this story? I don’t like it for this and that reason — because of this picture.” It is extremely fruitful to have somebody to talk to as an equal. This give and take is a most profitable thing because we keep learning from each other. I keep learning from the younger members just as I learned from Bob [Robert] Capa and Chim [David Seymour] how to make picture stories. Cornell Capa, for instance, has a very keen journalistic sense; and as for the other photographer, each makes his own contribution. Everybody in Magnum has full freedom; there’s no doctrine, there is no school, but there is something that unites all of us very strongly — I can’t define it; it may be a certain feeling of freedom and a respect for reality.
    • pp. 34-35
  • You have to have some psychological insight, you have to know the people and you must work in a way that’s acceptable to them. There you must smile — never laugh, because that’s considered making fun. Smile, take your time, and never come bursting in with your own personality. You have to lie low. Of course you can push and perhaps raise your voice a notch, but like a sensitive emulsion, a sensitive plate. Approach gently, tenderly, and never intrude, never push. Otherwise, if you use your elbows, it will work against you. Above all, be human!
    • p. 36
  • A contact sheet is so interesting, because you see how a photographer thinks. He comes closer and closer to a subject, corrects it, looks at it again, and then with tiny movements turns around until it is in exactly the right and exact relation to him. Contact sheets may be compared to the way you drive a nail into a plank. First you give several light taps to build up a rhythm and align the nail with the wood. Then, much more quickly, and with as few strokes as possible, you hit the nail forcefully on the head and drive it in.
    • p. 37
  • I think cynicism is the worst thing because it kills everything. There’s no more honesty, no more poetry, no more freshness. Cynicism is the worst thing — a kind of smart person who’s got all the answers. This is death. It kills creation. There’s no love, no tenderness, nothing at all left. There’s no hatred even, nothing. Equally dangerous is the detached attitude that says, “Everything is fun!”
    • p. 38

To Seize Life: Interview with Yvonne Baby (1961)


First published as Yvonne Baby, “Le ‘dur plaisir’ de Henri Cartier-Bresson,” L’Express no. 524 (June 29, 1961): 34-35. The conversation was revised by Yvonne Baby for its republication in the French edition of this volume.

  • There are photographers who invent, others who discover. Personally, I am interested in discoveries, not for the trials or experiences but to capture life itself. I flee from the dangers of the anecdote and the picturesque, which are very easy and better than sensational, but quite as bad. To my mind, photography has the power to evoke, and must not simply document. We have to be abstract, just like nature.
    • p. 44
  • Anybody can take photographs. I have seen in the Herald Tribune some taken by a monkey that managed, with a Polaroid camera, as well as some camera owners. It is precisely because our profession is open to everyone that it remains, in spite of its fascinating ease, extremely difficult.
    • p. 45
  • If I am asked about the photographer’s role in our times, the power of the image and so on, I do not want to launch into explanations. I only know that people who know how to look are as rare as those who know how to listen.
    • p. 45

Only Geometricians May Enter: Interview with Yves Bourde (1974)


First published as Yves Bourde, “Un entreaties avec Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Nul ne peut entrer ici s’il n’est géomètre,” Le Monde, no. 1,350 (September 5, 1974): 13.

  • I hate looking at photography books or illustrated magazines. This is not because of contempt. I’d rather look at contact sheets: that is where you can sense the individual.
    • p. 62
  • This book [Zen in the Art of Archery], by Herrigel, which I discovered a few years ago, seems to me fundamental to our profession as photographers. Matisse wrote similarly about drawing: set a discipline, make rigor a rule, forget oneself completely. And in photography the attitude must be the same: detach oneself, do not try to prove anything at all. My sense of freedom is the same: a frame that allows any variation. This is the basis of Zen Buddhism, the evidence: that you go in with great force and then you succeed in forgetting yourself.
    • p. 65

The Main Thing Is Looking: Interview with Alain Desvergnes (1979)


Desvergnes’s conversation with Cartier-Bresson was recorded and first broadcast on the occasion of a slide show of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs during an evening at the Théâtre Antique during the Rencontres d’Arles in July 1979. Transcript: Anaïs Feyeux. Excerpts of the interview were published as: Alain Desvergnes, “HCB à la question,” Photo, no. 144 (September 1, 1979): 86, 87, 98.

  • You have to look, and looking is so difficult. We are used to thinking. We reflect all the time, well or not, but people are not taught how to look. It takes a very long time.
    • p. 70
  • Photography is solitary work. There is emulation. It is interesting to know what other people do. Even so, writers do not read everything that is published. A painter does not look at everything. You have to choose. It’s reality, it’s life that is important. We shouldn’t be sniffing around each other all the time, looking....
    • p. 75

An Endless Play: Interview with Gilles Mora (1986)


First published as “Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gilles Mora: Conversation,” Les Cahiers de la Photography, no. 18 (1986): 177-25.

  • When you use a camera, your visual concentration is intense, as it is when you draw. But if you overshoot, your contact sheet is likely to become a jumble of peelings. You need a lot of sand to discover a nugget. Shooting is a play between pickpocketing and tightrope walking; an endless play, fraught with huge tension.
    • p. 102

Photographing Is Nothing, Looking Is Everything! Interview with Philippe Boegner (1989)


First published as Philippe Boegner, “Cartier-Bresson: ‘Photographier n’est rien, regarder c’est tout!’,” Figaro Magazine, no. 13,843 (February 25, 1989): 104-10.

  • Photography has never been a problem for me, [what is important] is looking, the way of looking, of questioning with your eyes: I don’t think; I am impulsive, it is /looking/ that’s important, not photography. Now, since I have started drawing, I’ve merely switched tools, but it is still looking that’s important. To look the right way, one should learn to become a deaf-mute.
    • p. 113
  • Photography has fulfilled my adventurous side: it is a real trade. I behaved like a thief in every country where I went, in China, in Africa, in America… all things considered, our trade is situated somewhere between pickpocket and tightrope walker… yes, we steal from people, we take something that belongs to them: their image, their culture.
    • p. 114
  • We had a certain idea of our work, a respect for others, and above all, [we were determined] not to be paparazzi. For the photographer, curiosity is essential, the terrible counterpart is indiscretion, which is a lack of restraint.
    • p. 115

We Always Talk Too Much: Conversation with Pierre Assouline (1994)


First published as Pierre Assouline, “Henri Cartier-Bresson,” Lire, no. 226-27 (July-August 1994): 30-37.

  • But with photography as with drawing or painting, once it is done I want to know whether it holds together or not. That is the real critique. I couldn’t care less if the person to whom I show what I do likes it or not — it takes all sorts to make a world and all that. To criticize is to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and try to figure out what they wanted to do. Only the “why” of things is important to me.
    • p. 132
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