Henri Cartier-Bresson was witness to and photographed much of the global political history of the early 1900’s. He was there to capture the lows such as America’s great depression, China’s descent into communism, and post-stalinist Russia. An hour before Ghandi was assassinated, he was there taken his photograph. He was there to capture the highs as well, from the coronation of the King and Queen of England, to stunning shots of a young Marilyn Monroe. He had an eye for the grit and strife present all around him in the world and had an uncanny ability to capture it in all of its realness. He traveled all over the globe and showed us all what was truly happening around us.
Beyond his ability to be at the right place at the right time to capture the world as it was changing socially or politically, what becomes so impressive about his work is the perspective he possessed while shooting his photographs. He was adamantly against cropping or editing his photographs, getting exactly what he wanted in his viewfinder and letting the picture speak for itself with no modifications. His exclusive use of black and white tends to parallel the subjects of his works, showing us in stark contrast the reality of the world as he saw it. His photographs capturing the black and white of any given situation, frozen in time for examination by any who choose to see it.
When shooting things of less global significance he was known to be quick and agile, covering the reflective parts of his camera with black tape. This allowed him to unobtrusively snap photographs without anyone being the wiser. Adding to that, he wore clothes that allowed him to blend in to the background. Moving quickly and not lingering in any one spot was another of his techniques for capturing his work. This allows his images to feel real and genuine, unaltered by the subjects awareness of being photographed.
I believe the most important thing one can learn from Cartier-Bresson is to always strive for better, for more. He never got wrapped up in his work. While it is always great to appreciate what you have accomplished, he was known to say that once the picture was taken he was already looking for the next one. If you start to appreciate your work too much and get caught up in it, you will eventually only manage to hold yourself back. This tendency and train of thought is one that I have always felt personally, and reminds me of a phrase that I believe captures the sentiment of Cartier-Bresson’s mindset: Satisfaction is the death of desire.