The Decisive Moment – Photographs and Words by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1973)
“I’ve been taking pictures when I was very young. I think I don’t remember what age. I started by painting and drawing and for me photography was a mean of drawing and that’s all. Immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it it’s your next picture. But life is very fluid. Well sometimes the pictures disappeared and there is nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, oh, please smile again do that gesture again. Life is once, forever.
I’m not interested in documenting. Documenting is extremely dull and journalism…I’m a very bad reporter and a photojournalist. Capa told me when I had an exhibition at the museum of Modern Art in ’46, he said no, he’d be very careful. You mustn’t have a label of a surrealist photographer. All my training was surrealism. I still feel very close to a surrealist but he said if you were labelled as a surrealist photographer you won’t go any further you won’t have an assignment and you’re going to be like a hot house plant. Just forget it, do whatever you like but the label should be photojournalist. And Capa was extremely sound so I never mentioned surrealism, that’s my private affair. And what I want, what I’m looking for is my business. And I’m not a reporter. Its accidentally, it’s on the side. If I go to a place, its to try and have a picture which concretises a situation which wonder, glances everything and which has a strong relations of shapes which for me is essential for me its a visual pleasure.
There was a rhythm, the way, the head falls here this goes back. There is a rhyme between different elements. There is a square here, rectangle and other rectangle…see its all these problems which I’m preoccupied with. The greatest joy for me is geometry that means a structure. You can’t go shooting for shapes for patterns and all this but its a sensuous pleasure, an intellectual pleasure at the same time to have everything at the right place. It’s a recognition of an order which is in front of you. Like on this picture, the portrait of a grandmother and the little girl. Its all these relations of curves, of designs of lines. The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters, a small, small difference, but its essential and if I take the picture from there its another arrangement of there there, there, and its very arrangement of small moves I’m doing. Im not jumping up and down. It’s a relation between your nose, your eyes, the window behind and that’s my pleasure…to establish these relations. And sometimes there is no picture, alright there is no picture.
Alicante, Spain, 1933
Photojournalism. Photojournalism, it’s a way of noting, well some journalists are wonderful writers and others are just putting facts one after the other and facts are not interesting. Facts are not interesting. It’s a point of view on facts which is important and in photography it is re-evocation if you evoke and this consists evoking.
I took some photographs and it’s like a trick of story or a real story or it’s a good thing and there is a whole world in it. Photographs I care for – it’s a photograph I can look at for more than 2 minutes but it’s extremely long. Any photograph you can look at over and over again….not many, not many.
The most difficult thing for me, that’s a portrait. It’s very difficult. It’s a question mark you put on somebody trying to say, who is it, what does it amount to, what’s the significance of that face? And the difference between a portrait and a snap shot is that a portrait is a person agreed to be photographed. It’s not at all like somebody you see, you catch in the street, up like this.
I like to take people in their, how do you call that, environment, environment, an animal in its habitat, habitat yes and its fascinating coming like this in people’s home, looking at them, but you have to be like a cat, not disturb, and tiptoes always and tiptoes but certainly its like a biologist and his microscope. When you study everything, it doesn’t react the same way as when it is not studied and you have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt which is not a very easy thing. And the attitudes of people are so different in front of a camera. Some embarrassed, some are ashamed, some hate to be photographed and others are showing off. You feel people very quickly. You see people naked through the viewfinder, you see them strip naked and it’s sometimes very embarrassing. And I remember I had to take for Vogue, a very, very old lady, Bostonian, wonderful old lady. She smiled at me but a sort of smile but you can’t smile back at her. She wanted to check on the picture before publication and I said I’m sorry I have never done that, it’s a question of trust and she agreed. She said, “Oh my wrinkles” and I told her it’s your own interesting thing, your wrinkles, after all it depends how they fall. Which is true, its life, it’s a mark of life. It depends how people have been living and all this is written on their face. After a certain age, you got the face you deserve I think.
Usually when taking a portrait I feel like putting a few questions just to get a reaction of a person talking as little as possible but still you must establish a contact of some sort. Whereas with Matisse, I stood in front of him for maybe an hour and a half in utter silence. We were looking at each other in the eyes and I took maybe altogether one good photograph for possible and two which were not interesting. Its about 6 pictures in an hour and a half, and no embarrassment whatsoever.
Sometimes people ask, How many pictures do you take? Do you take many pictures a day? I say well, there is no rule. Sometimes, like in this picture in Greece, well I saw the frame of the whole thing and I waited for somebody to pass and I snapped two pictures, one was an orthodox priest, with a cylinder hat and a little girl. Well the little girl was exactly the thing in a relation with the other shapes whereas him it was something comes, it was another conception and sometimes there was not a second choice because the people are gone. That’s why it develops a great anxiety, this profession. Cause you are always waiting, what’s going to happen, what, what, what, what! It’s what? Yes, Uh…like this. It’s all the time. You shooting so yes, yes, maybe, yes, but you shouldn’t over shoot. It’s like over eating or over drinking, you have to eat, you have to drink but over is too much. Because by the time you press your arm the shutter wants more and maybe the picture was in between. It’s a fraction of a second, it’s an instinct. In photography you have to be quick, quick, quick, like an animal and a prey, like this you grasp it and take it and people don’t notice that you have taken it. But it’s a question of when is everything in your body is wrraff!!! And it’s beautiful. For me it’s a physical pleasure, photography. It doesn’t take many brains. Doesn’t take any brains, takes sensitivity, a finger and two legs. But it is beautiful when you feel that your body is working or, like this, full of air and in contact with nature, it’s beautiful. Pomgaretta…arrggh! You see!
I’m extremely impulsive, terribly. It’s really a pain in the neck for my friends and family. I’m a bunch of nerves but I take advantage of it in photography. I never think. I act, quick, like this and uhh. You have to forget yourself, you have to be yourself and you have to forget yourself, so that the image comes much stronger. What you want and what you see. If you get involved completely in what you’re doing and not thinking. Ideas are very dangerous. You must think all the time but when you’re photographing you’re not tyring to push a point to explain something, to prove something. You don’t prove anything. It comes by itself.
Quai de Javel (Ragpickers), Paris, 1932
The first impression is central, the first glance was shock, surprise, pff..it jumps at you. You nourish it by your own life, by your taste, the intellectual luggage that you carry. Your experiences, your love, your hate, it’s really fully and richly. And poetry is the essence of everything. There’s two elements which are suddenly in conflict and there’s a spark between two elements but it’s given very seldom. You can’t look for it. It’s like if you look for inspiration the whole thing comes and it’s by enriching yourself and living. Say I wait for that picture for great pictures, well it’s seldom you make a great picture. You have to milk the cow quite a lot and get plenty milk to make a little cheese. I don’t know what it means to be dramatically new. There’s no new ideas in the world, there is only a new arrangement of things. Everything is new, every minute is new. It means re-examining. Life changes every minute. The world is being created every minute and the world is falling to pieces every minute. Death is present every where, as soon as we are born and it is a very beautiful thing the tragic, le tragic de la vie – what is tragic in life – ’cause there is always two poles and one cannot exist without the other one. It is these tensions I am always moved by.
This picture I like in a way. I was driving in Greece in the mountains in the north. There was a child on the road. He was keeping goats. I don’t know I waved or something and suddenly he started walking on his hands. There was such an exultation, such a joy in that barren country, that dust road. I like English people very much and it’s the most exotic country for a French man. It’s the biggest difference, to go to England see the English people even now. How can I say politely? When I am in England I feel like I am sitting in a very comfortable armchair and I am looking at the stage and all these actors, I can applaud them but they got a set of rules and I’m not supposed to step in and jump in on the stage and play with them. You see…..It’s like this. You look at the play, shouldn’t applaud too loud and I enjoyed it tremendously.
I think everything is interesting. If you’re scratched but at the same time you can’t just photograph everything you see. There are some places where the pulse beats more and others….after the war, I don’t know but I had a feeling that going to colonial countries was important. What changes are going to take place there? That’s why I spent 3 years in the Far East.
I was in India just at the death of Gandhi, after the partition between India and Pakistan and it’s to be present when there is a change of situation, when there is most tension. And I had been living in India for about a year even more and problem of demography, immensity of space, of people preoccupied me very much. I like to live in a place, I don’t like to go for short. What is made with time, time will respect it or something like this.
I spent in China the last few months of the Kuo-Ming-Tang regime. I watch its falling into pieces and I was there when the communists arrived. I stayed there for another 6 months. But Chinese have always been between a chaotic and a stern and very tyrannical regime. For centuries it has been from one to the other. I was very lucky to be just at that change. A tradition and what remains of a tradition and at the same time what is a revolutionary attitude and another conception of man.
To interest people on far away places to shock them, to delight them is not too difficult. The most difficult thing is on your own country. You know too much its a…when its on your own block, its such a routine, its quite difficult to get out. When I’m going to a butcher, well….places where I am all the time…I know too much and not enough and to be lucid about is the most difficult. But your mind must be open. Open, aware. Aware, like this, like having a radar, a, searchlight or like this. And that’s why anybody has done 10 good photographs in his life. What is interesting is consistency. To keep on, on, on, on. Its always re examining things, trying to be more lucid and free and to go more deeper and deeper. I don’t know. ‘Cause a camera is a weapon. You can’t prove anything but at the same time it is a weapon. It is not a propaganda mean photography. Not at all. But it’s a way of shouting the way you feel. I love life, I love human beings, I hate people also. You see the camera, it can be a machine gun. It can be a psychoanalytical couch. It can be a warm kiss. It can be a sketch book, the camera. And even for me, that’s strictly my way of feeling, I enjoy shooting a picture, being present and it’s a way of saying yes, yes, yes. It’s like the last 3 words of Ulysses of Joyce, which is one of the tremendous works which has ever been written. Its yes, yes, yes. And photography is like that. Its yes, yes, yes. And there is no maybe. All the maybes should go to trash because it’s very instant, it’s the presence, it’s a moment, its there. And it’s a respect of it and it’s an enjoyment it’s a tremendous enjoyment of saying yes! Even if it’s something you hate…yes! It’s an affirmation…Yes!”
ASX CHANNEL: Henri Cartier-Bresson
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