If you haven’t read the first part (and #10), you can start here: Top B&W Photographers: Tom’s 10.
It would be impossible for me to write about my relationship with B&W photography without including Henri Cartier-Bresson. I own a number of books containing his work, but more importantly, my head remains full of his photographs! His influence on my own approach has been profound.
There was a time, perhaps fifteen to twenty years ago, when it was almost impossible to open a slew of magazines in the newsagents without finding Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos being used somewhere within, as teaching aids. This is for good reason: his photographs can teach us a great deal, not only about complex and dynamic composition, but about the business of getting out there and mingling with ‘life’. His photographs paint a picture of vivid, interesting, surprising life in all its diversity, accessible to all, but mostly hidden from lazier eyes. I can’t think of a photographer who has inspired so many to put on their shoes, pick up their camera and walk out into the vast ocean of ‘possibilities’. As Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs show us, we do not need to disappear off to exotic locations. There is a wealth of material right under our noses. This is something often said, but rarely demonstrated as convincingly through vast quantities of compelling images. On that subject, he is surely the grandfather of modern street photography.
My next point relates to complexity. Photography is a hugely diverse subject and one can only imagine the length of book that any one of us could write were we to scribble down everything we know about photography. For newcomers to learn, the art and craft of photography is necessarily broken down into bite sized chunks and this often comes across as a set of rules requiring adherence. Of course these ‘rules’ are no more than starting points, but it can be hard for some photographers to move beyond the comfort of structured approaches. This is where Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work is peerless: it provides an excellent structured platform for newcomers to learn and it is easily used to exemplify a wide range of points. However, at the same time, it can be used to open up much more complex ideas and approaches (for example, to composition). Henri Cartier-Bresson really does provide a constant source of inspiration, whether you’re a complete beginner or vastly experienced. His work is enormously familiar to me, yet I still find myself marvelling at it.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is rarely dramatic and yes, I find this refreshing. His work lacks intensity. There is an almost total absence of politics, whether geopolitical or personal. There are no artist statements and there is no horror. For British readers, the mental image that comes to mind is the 1970s TV show, The Good Life. Both provide nourishment, enjoyment and connection on a very simple, human level and we also see ourselves, living our own lives. However, time has passed and the world no longer looks as it once did. Textures are less organic. There is more metal and plastic today, which jives very differently against fleshy humans. The streets are cleaner, both literally and figuratively.
Living with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs therefore require translation for the modern world. You can’t just go out and emulate his photographs and expect to produce the same results, unless you seek out those areas untouched by recent decades. Some photographers do this, perhaps without realising that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs did not look like that, then! They depicted a world that was familiar to the viewer 60 years ago. Those who emulate him now depict a world that is alien to most of us. It is perhaps best found on Greek Islands, in Spanish villages and parts of Paris. In some respects, as with some of Ansel Adams’ work, I feel that much of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work is now separated from the modern world and contemporary possibilities without translation. It has to be reinvented. We must evolve even if we only wish to stand still. That era of life is gone, as are its photographs.
If my previous paragraph sounded negative, it was not meant to. If anything, I feel the thought invigorates me. Those of us photographing today have the privilege of being able to produce photographs that cannot be emulated in years to come. Henri Cartier-Bresson reminds us that today is what matters and in order to really get beneath the surface, we actually have to get out in it and connect with it. We have to live the photographs we seek.
Finally, we have Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. I am not going to labour this, but I don’t think any photographer before him helped drive home the importance of timing to the same extent. Since HCB, nobody has needed to! Steve McCurry’s derivative ‘unguarded moment’ has turned out to be more a case of ‘constructed moments’ and ‘photoshopped moments’, sadly. However, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s lesson loses none of its importance: timing can change everything. In photography, we rarely look at a whole. We are mostly dealing with the thinnest slices of time of specific views of small fragments of life, in all their chaos. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work shows what rich pickings there are to be had in exploring the minute of time, rather than space. And don’t worry, I’m not going to reference Star Trek. Instead, I am going to leave you with some more photographs: