Henri Cartier-Bresson (22 August 1908 – 3 August 2004) was a French photographer, widely regarded as the father of modern photojournalism and street photography. In 1947, alongside Rober Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodgers, he co-founded the photo agency Magnum Photos, which has gone on to become one of the most influential photo agencies in history.
Born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France, Cartier-Bresson began his artistic career with a paintbrush. It wasn’t until 1932 that he got his hands on a Leica, and then, everything changed. During the Second World War, he was imprisoned but remarkably managed to escape in 1943 and went on to spend the remainder of the war working with a French resistance group that helped other escapees.
In 1953 Cartier-Bresson published his first book, Images à la Sauvette, which in English translates to The Decisive Moment. This remarkable collection of street photography and photojournalism set him on a path to be remembered for not only his incredible photos but also for a foundational photographic concept. As he said himself, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”.
This idea that within any event there will always be a peak moment, the perfect moment, the Decisive Moment to press that shutter button, is something I have often thought about myself when I put a camera to my eye. You don’t want to be too early. You don’t want to be too late. Predicting the Decisive Moment requires total connection to the situation and environment that you are working in. At this, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a master.
My Favourite Henri Cartier-Bresson Quotes
When I started researching this post, I thought it would be tough to beat the collection of Ansel Adams quotes that I published last time. But, you know what? I might have been wrong! Henri Cartier-Bresson has a succinct way with words that gives you a clear and fascinating look into the mind of a photographic master.
1. “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
2. “Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
3. “A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson Quotes on The Decisive Moment
4. “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
5. “The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
6. “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” Henri Cartier- Bresson
7. “Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
8. “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
9. “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
10. “Memory is very important, the memory of each photo taken, flowing at the same speed as the event. During the work, you have to be sure that you haven’t left any holes, that you’ve captured everything because afterwards, it will be too late.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
11. “The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson on Vision and Composition
12. “Photography is, for me, a spontaneous impulse coming from an ever-attentive eye which captures the moment and its eternity” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
13. “Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
14. “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
15. “Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify. The question is, do we always cut out what we should?” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
16. “We must avoid, however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
17. “Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
18. “This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson On Cameras
19. “For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” Henri Cartier-Bresson
20. “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
21. “The picture is good or not from the moment it was caught in the camera” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson On Portrait Photography
22. “The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
23. “As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
24. “A photographer must always work with the greatest respect for his subject and in terms of his own point of view.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson Quotes On Life
25. “Life is once, forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
26. “You just have to live and life will give you pictures.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
27. “As far as I am concerned, taking photographs is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s own originality. It is a way of life.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
28. “I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.” Henri Cartier-Bresson