Cartier-Bresson's Impact On Photojournalism

Aug 15, 2004

By Claude Cookman

Editor's note: Claude Cookman, an associate professor of Journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, is the author of one of the essays in Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World: A Retrospective (Thames & Hudson, 2003). The catalogue was published as part of the Cartier-Bresson retrospective at the opening of the photographer's Foundation in Paris last year. Cookman, an acclaimed photographic historian, was the winner of the NPPA's Robin F. Garland Educator Award in 1999.

The death of Henri Cartier-Bresson reminds us of the huge debt we photojournalists owe to this French giant who stopped actively photographing more than 30 years ago.

His phrase, "the decisive moment," is probably the first association for most. Capturing the climactic instant, whether peak sports action or subtle emotional interaction, has become the gold standard for photojournalists. But history and Cartier-Bresson's own words enrich our understanding of this packed term.

Capturing action was difficult and rare with old view cameras mounted on tripods and bulky hand-held press cameras such as the Graflex. That changed when the 35mm Leica appeared in Germany in the mid 1920s. Beginning in the early 1930s with a series of photographs remarkable for their revelatory content and pristine composition, Cartier-Bresson showed the world the Leica's potential to achieve spontaneity. That remains his greatest legacy to photography's trajectory.

The decisive moment is most closely associated with his signature photograph taken in 1932 behind a railroad terminal in Paris. It freezes a leaping man a millisecond before his foot splashes down in a huge puddle. For Cartier-Bresson, the decisive moment meant more that just stopping action. Trained as a painter in the classical French tradition and captivated by the recent revival of the theory of the golden proportion, he insisted that geometric composition was vital. Such composition can be seen in the 1932 photo, with its repetition of forms and placement of focal point. In the preface to his 1952 book The Decisive Moment -- which should be required reading for all photojournalists -- Cartier-Bresson defined his aesthetic 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."

What is likely to be forgotten is that Cartier-Bresson's use of the Leica showed modern photojournalism a new ethic. Because large-format cameras used holders with only two sheets of film, earlier photojournalists commonly staged their pictures. In contrast, Cartier-Bresson practiced unobtrusiveness as the route to capturing unposed photographs. This allowed him to respect his subjects while also obtaining natural, revealing images. His unobtrusive approach allowed him to take and keep photographs of the assassinated Mohandas Gandhi, lying in state in January 1948. (The Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who photographed Gandhi with a large camera and flash, had her film confiscated by the Mahatma's devotees who considered her actions disrespectful.) Cartier-Bresson articulated his ethic and the unobtrusive approach that now goes by the term "a fly on the wall" in The Decisive Moment preface: "We are bound to arrive as intruders," he wrote. "It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe.... It's no good jostling or elbowing." As part of his unobtrusiveness, he rejected artificial lighting. "And no photographs taken with the aid of flashlight either, if only out of respect for the actual light.... Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character."

Humanism, another element of his ethic, also infuses contemporary photojournalism. With few exceptions, Cartier-Bresson photographed people. They are seen with warmth, curiosity, empathy, and occasionally humor. It is no accident that of the 502 images that Edward Steichen chose for his Family of Man exhibition, 10 were by Cartier-Bresson. He spoke often of how photography required the alignment of not just the head and hand, but also the heart. His humanism extended beyond respecting his subjects, to serving an audience. Writing in 1952 at the height of anxiety about the nuclear arms race, he characterized his role as supplying photographs to "a world weighted down with preoccupations," one full of people "needing the companionship of images." A few years later, he told an interviewer: "The important thing about our relations with the press is that it provides us with the possibility of being in close contact with life's events. What is most satisfying for a photographer is not recognition, success, and so forth. It's communication: what you say can mean something to other people, can be of a certain importance."

His humanism aligned with a social conscience. During his formative years in the 1920s and 1930s, he saw the effects of the worldwide depression and the rise of Hitler's Nazism. As a young journalist, he felt compelled to witness these problems with his camera. Explaining his change from painting to photography, he told an interviewer: "The adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush to the scars of the world." He was engaged in leftist politics during the 1930s and active in the Green Party in his later years. Running throughout his work are numerous images that expose the contradictions of capitalism, such as a homeless couple bedding down for the night in front of a store window with a large IBM logo.

As with many great figures, Cartier-Bresson's life and work are enveloped in myth. For the record, on occasion he did use flash, he did crop his pictures, and he did allow himself to be photographed -- although only by his wife, the photographer Martine Franck, and his colleagues at Magnum Photos, the agency which he cofounded with Robert Capa and others in 1947.

The most important misconception about his work, however, is that he is a single-image photographer. In numerous books and exhibitions, his work is shown as an aggregation of discrete photographs, seemingly unrelated to each other. In contrast, his contact sheets at Magnum's Paris Bureau demonstrate that most of the great images resulted from extended picture stories that he shot for magazines such as Harper's BazaarLifeLookHolidayParis MatchDu, and Epoca.

These reportages fall into three major categories. He photographed news events such as the liberation of Paris, the funeral of Gandhi, the fall of Beijing, and the 1968 student rebellion in Paris. In the early 1960s he photographed and wrote texts for a series of 16 portraiture stories for a London magazine, The Queen. Published under the running title "A Touch of Greatness," the stories profiled such notables as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Robert Kennedy, and Julie Harris. His largest body of work might be characterized as ethnography. From country to country, he systematically sought out and photographed the same human activities and institutions: the marketplace; the church, synagogue or mosque; the parks where children played and adults relaxed; kindergartens and universities; concerts, plays, weddings, funerals, and people at work, from peasant farmers to computer engineers. His 1954 report on the people of Russia is arguably his greatest essay in this genre, but he also worked the streets of China, Cuba, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, most European countries, and the United States.

As the art world has claimed Cartier-Bresson, exhibiting his work in the world's most prestigious museums and publishing it in art-book formats, it is important to remember that Cartier-Bresson was a magazine photojournalist. Most of his great images would never have been taken without assignments from the picture magazines.

In the mid 1970s, for a variety of complex reasons he disavowed photojournalism and photography, returning to his first love of drawing. But his contact sheets, captions, story manuscripts, published writings, and interviews all demonstrate that during his active career from the 1930s through the 1960s, he thought and worked in the European tradition of magazine photojournalism.

He said it best in an interview: "People often say that I have been in the right place at the right time. What they really mean is that I follow the newspapers, in order to get a sense of what is happening in the world." In his 1955 book The Europeans, Cartier-Bresson characterized the role of the photographic reporter by saying, "I was there and this is how life appeared to me at that moment." Taken together, these two statements plus his archives at Magnum encompass the essence of photojournalism: Anticipating a significant event, he got himself into position, photographed with thoroughness, edited his film, added text and captions, and then, through the picture magazines, communicated what he witnessed to a mass audience.

Claude Cookman can be reached at ccookman@indiana.edu.