One of the five greatest photographers of the 20th Century.

Go here to see some of his iconic images: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN

The book that shoved photography from second class citizenship into consideration as true art was a revolutionary book that rumbled into the world and shook up editors, magazines and every photographer with a pulse. It was Henri Cartier Bresson's, The Decisive Moment. It's impossible to say, without sounding saturated with hyperbole, just how dramatic the impact of that book was when it hit the bookstores in 1952.

In the U.S. at the time, most journalists were using larger cameras like twin lens Rolleiflexes and bigger single plate cameras like the Graphlex. Most portraits were lit and meticulously controlled. Amateur photographers were at war with grain and most images were tinged with a vague romanticism. HCB walked into the party and turned it upside down.

He was one of the pioneers of the genre we now call street photography but he practiced it all over the world, from Alabama to China. He carried a small, screw mount Leica camera with which he was ultimately fluid. He favored the 50mm focal length but kept a 35mm in one pocket and a 90mm in another pocket. His camera was, of course, a completely manual rangefinder and no one ever saw him use, touch, or hold a light meter. He learned exposure through experience.

He never used flash. He once was quoted as saying that "Using flash is like bringing a handgun to the Opera."

But what about the images? This collection contains over 150 very well printed images. The book weighs in at 6 pounds and is 338 pages in all. The images chosen are both his best work and his greatest hits.

The core of what HCB did was this:  He was inconspicuous, his camera was used quickly and discreetly, his exposures were pre-estimated, he watched for the decisive moment when all the elements in a frame came together perfectly, when the energy of the frame hit a peak, and he would bring the camera to his eye and snap.  He captured a world in transition. From the second world war, to peacetime and rebuilding and he documented transitions in societies into modernism and into the post industrial age.

But he was much more than a documentarian. He was an artist. He was trained as a painter. He came from enormous wealth and he left a legacy that changed our visual world.

I remember back to 1977 when I  was working hard at being an electrical engineering student at UT. I went to the Fine Arts Library with a girlfriend and I browsed while she worked on a paper. I stumbled across a copy (now nearly priceless) of the first English edition of The Decisive Moment and sat down in one of the study carrels to glance through it. Over the course of several hours I looked through the book again and again. Trying to tattoo the images onto my retinas. In one moment of library Satori I'd discovered a master who was responsible for me buying my first real camera (a 35mm rangefinder) and embarking into a passionate study of photography

Looking through my collection of HCB books I am still inspired and can still see the influence of this Frenchman's vision poking and tickling my images. He taught us that photography was about motion, about design and about being aware enough to know exactly when to hit the button and save a concisely framed moment in black and white amber.

He, along with Avedon and Penn, is one of the five greatest photographers of the 20th Century. In my mind he is the precursor to the current, modern age of image making. A loner, an artist, a sensualist. Buy the book at your own peril. I've met many photographers who were lured into this passion during an unguarded moment with a book of Henri Cartier Bresson photographs.


  1. Did you ever see Just Plain Love?


    Not everyone's cup of tea but I thought it was brilliant.

  2. He was definitely one of the greatest - that's why I had his book right next to yours...

  3. What HCB did is illegal in the Europe of today. I'm often stopped or questioned by police, or worse, private guards, for taking photographs of places that no one in his right mind would object to. Some may get a charge out of this, but I feel discouraged.
    If I lurked around for the "decisive moment," I'd better get a lawyer first.
    Does anyone know of a photographer's organization that is effectively protesting against this criminalization of photography? I'd like to contribute. Wouldn't the work of HCB be a good symbol to help reverse this trend?

    1. Hi Robert. Photographer's rights became a big issue in England following several well-reported arrests and confiscation of camera equipment by police officers with no right to do so. Broadly, in England you can take photographs of anything you like on public land as long as you aren't harrasing anyone (that's left to the press papparazzi). A security guard cannot stop you taking images of private property for non-commercial use if you are on public land. They cannot ask you to leave if you are on public land. They certainly cannot manhandle you, arrest you, confiscate your camera or ask you to delete images. Also, police officers cannot ask you to delete images or confiscate your gear without a warrant.
      Amateur Photographer magazine set out photographers' rights here: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/photo-news/535586/uk-photographers-rights-print-them-out-and-keep-them-handy

    2. Chris, Thanks for the link; nothing so clear would be possible in Italy -- for every ten laws that give us the right to take photos there are another ten that take it away. However, I could copy this, create a official-looking Italian one, and just pretend that it is real. Now that could work.

    3. Er...While France is supposed to have the toughest laws on privacy and photography, most of H-C.B.'s pictures could still be taken today... Many young followers are doing it without real hassle !

  4. I was shooting people and the things they did on the "streets Of Johannesburg" as the 60's started. The Owner of a bookshop seeing me with camera, all the time,handed me "Henri Cartier-Bresson". I devoured that book. I have carried it with me, on trips across the globe. I later added much larger books, magazines and portfolios by Henri.
    Many of his photos are a study in design and a special moment.
    I once read that H-C-B was asked about the technique of photography. The answer was " a nose to sniff out the photos, an eye to see and a finger to push the button!"
    I work that way! My late Mom was Parisian. The Lady gave me a deeper insight to Cartier-Bresson's vision.My Camera at the time, an Olympus Pen. Later the Leica M-3.
    The use of digital, of automation, have countered the difficult technical part of photography. Now one needs the talents and skills mentioned above.
    HCB wrote that color was a problem, in that the photographer did NOT have enough control. That has changed for the better.
    I am retired from work, still happily doing my Street Photography" now in Toronto, Canada.I use mostly a Digital P/S. Sometimes that Leica..

  5. I really like his approach and rationale. Being discreet is key, having a good eye and knowing when to click the shutter is really what it's all about. When I look at how someone like Bruce Gilden works, while I like his work, his approach baffles me...I don't know how he isn't punched out on a regular basis. When I shoot on the street or at an event I prefer to be a participant, someone who blends into the background and disappears from plain sight. Generally I don't want people reacting to my camera, smiling or posing etc, though if that does happen I don't mind that at all either, it can be fun to get an impromptu smile or pose. I guess the important thing is to find what works for you, use a camera that makes it easy for you and an approach that helps you realize your vision. So many of HCB's photographs have a running narrative that when I look at them, depending on what's going on in my own head, the story the picture tells ends up being different each time.

  6. Certainly, Cartier-Bresson is one of the greatest and deserves to be on the list.

    My list would also include Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander. Sorry, can't hold it to just five.

  7. Wash your mouth out Mr T. One of the five greatest indeed. Who were the other four?

    1. Well Jeremy, I've already started my list on the blog. The first (not ranked in order of importance) was Richard Avedon. The second was Irving Penn. Now we have HCB. That leaves two more. One more street photographer and one more....

    2. For my tastes, the remaining two would have to be Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith. Of course, I don't expect any sort of consensus; there is no shortage of worthy candidates.

  8. Totally safe here, Avedon has already entirely "lured me in" ;)

  9. Thank God for studious girlfriends, huh? ;>)

    Excellent post. I'm enjoying your series on the photographers.



  10. Gee... I bought that book when it came out for the major exposition that was done at the "Great Library" (TGB) in Paris. Of course, my photographer daughter has "borrowed" it almost since then !
    One misinterpretation I often see is about him being "discreet" or "stealthy".... In fact he wasn't! He was a big physical guy, that couldn't escape being seen. His "invisibility" came by his dance around his subjects and in the action. He was felt as there, but quickly forgotten as a danger (or stranger), he spent time doing his "japanese archer" thing, till he found the proper framing.
    A bit like in Saint Exupery's Little Prince part of the taming of the fox...
    With Doisneau, Boubat, Ronis, he really shaped our way of seeing our world through a camera...

  11. Not sure who your other street photographer is but Elliot Erwitt is a favorite of mine.

  12. The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.

  13. There is someone (I can't find the link right now) who has the publishing rights to "The Decisive Moment". I really wish they would go ahead and print up a bunch of them.


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