Went to a Cartier-Bresson exhibit the other day...


Hall of Famer
Brisbane, Australia

The weekend before last I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition of some of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art, titled Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image & The World. This was the first time that I'd had the chance to see a large collection of Bresson's work in print. It contained some iconic images that I'd seen before, and many that I had the pleasure of seeing for the first time. Viewing his work gave me pause to think about Cartier-Bresson's approach to the world of photography that he had such a big influence on. I thought I might jot down some of the impressions that the exhibition left me with.

  • HCB's approach to street photography impressed from the point of view that he didn't just seek to photograph people in the street, but to use the street as a frame to his subjects. Being able to combine "the moment" and composition is a rare talent indeed.

  • The standard focal length may be just, well...standard, but magic lies within that natural field-of-view.

  • Focus and sharpness is a component of photography, but not always the most important component that it is often made out to be.

  • One of the keys to making a timeless image is to make the image reveal when it was taken. An image of a flower (for example) may be beautiful, but an image that records people, in a place, at a time, is a piece of history.

  • There's talent. There's opportunity. There's access. Combine all three and the result is a collection of work like this that will amaze and inspire. Worth the price of admission many times over.

After viewing the exhibition, with camera in hand, I tried to channel but a fraction of what I had just learned. I can only try...

Pen E-PL1 + Lumix G 20mm f1.7








Top Veteran
Nice words on a true photographic icon.

It is worth remembering that he had a lifetime to put together the images in his "greatest hits". I'm sure he had his off days, and not every shot would be a masterpiece, far from it.

We can probably only judge ourselves and what we have achieved over an extended period of time, in the same way as we look at the work of of our peers.

Personally if I get one two shots per year I'm really happy with, I think I'm doing well. Lots of craft and technique, but those inspirational, moment of magic pictures, come very rarely.

Finally, there are rumours that he set some of his classics up. The famous man jumping over a puddle image has been suggested to be the result of quite a few attempts!!

Ray Sachs

Not too far from Philly
you should be able to figure it out...
Looks like you were inspired by the exhibition - nice shooting!

I'm always feeling a tension between using the environment as a frame for the people involved - ie, composition first - and trying to capture something ABOUT the people in the shot. In a way, the first approach (Cartier Bresson's) is easier because you take your time and find the composition and then you hang out and wait for something to happen. And it doesn't take much. I'll sometimes do this and do 10-20 exposures at that spot as various people and combinations of people pass through the shot and either create some sort of interaction or not. And then I pick the best of them well after the fact when one or two usually stand out to me as having a somewhat higher level of animation or being able to tell SOMETHING about the subject, etc. But in many cases, I could probably use any one of three or four of those 10-20 I shot and they'd have a very similar impact because the composition is the point - the people are almost props. I wonder, for example, how many shots Cartier-Bresson took looking down that crooked stairway at the street as various pedestrians and vehicles passed by before he nailed that iconic shot of the cyclist riding through? If it was me, I'd have a LOT! And, of course, probably would not have seen such a beautiful composition in the first place nor gotten that bicyclist so perfectly. :cool:

The other type of street photography is much more fluid, where you're walking among people and always on the lookout for an interesting looking person or group of people with some sort of interaction going on in the shot - some sort of human moment. And I'll shoot a LOT when I'm doing this kind of shooting and have a pretty strong intent for each shutter click, but only a very small percentage of these shots work. And an even smaller percentage actually have something interesting happening from a compositional standpoint. Its a rare shot when I manage an interesting composition AND an intimate enough shot to catch a truly human moment. And there's usually an element of accident in this. Occasionally I'll go for something and get it, but just as often I'll discover it after the fact when I'm going through the images for the day. And, as often as not, it'll feel like there was a LOT of luck involved in the good ones. Obviously, you make your own luck to a certain degree by being out there shooting and really working at it, but the good individual shots often feel like there was a lot of luck involved.

I can't settle on doing just one of these types of street photography. I'll usually do plenty of each on any given day I'm out shooting... And I've never yet set up a shot - maybe THAT'S why I'm not as good as Cartier-Bresson! :D



Administrator Emeritus
Philly, Pa
Nic, glad ya saw the photos in person. Your #3 is close to how Bresson would think.
As far as setups go, any good street photographer sets up the shot. Just merely walking, looking and waiting is a setup.
Your waiting for a moment when all things come together, that's a setup if ever there was one. What's wrong with that.
No one has control over time. Waiting for that split second is waiting for the setup.


Vancouver, BC

I wonder, for example, how many shots Cartier-Bresson took looking down that crooked stairway at the street as various pedestrians and vehicles passed by before he nailed that iconic shot of the cyclist riding through? If it was me, I'd have a LOT! And, of course, probably would not have seen such a beautiful composition in the first place nor gotten that bicyclist so perfectly. :cool:

He probably did shoot a few, but fewer than you or I might. He was using film after all, not a 4 or 10 frame per second digital wonder capable of storing hundreds of not thousands of high resolution images.

Bresson wrote about one of his photos, a handful of children playing, that he had taken a dozen or so shots and of those he kept three. That sounds reasonable for that sort of subject - without the ability to chimp, you will shoot more.

I don't recall reading about the story behind this particular shot (Hyeres, France, 1932 - it sold in 2008 at auction for a quarter million dollars). Maybe he stood there waiting for "whatever" or perhaps he stood there observing for a awhile and thought that given the distance to any subjects below, meaningful glances or couples holding hands would either be too indistinct or cliche to bring this interesting collection of stone, angles, tri-angles, and curves alive.

Maybe as he stood there looking at the stone steps, the iron railing, the building corner beyond, and the stone roadway and curb and thought it all represented tight, enduring... permanence or immovability or some similar notion. Some might be content with the architectural features and made a photo of that without... distractions. But HCB (and certainly some photographers here too) would instead have been looking for something to bring the static scene alive.

To some the scene may represent hard, cold, rigid structure so a couple walking down the street hand in hand, or arms linked and heads tilted to one another, could have brought the scene alive in an interesting way. I'd guess such a couple, if one were to be found in this corner of the city, could be too indistinct from his vantage point to generate much emotional response.

Perhaps instead HCB would have immediately opted for the natural contrast to static: motion. With that in mind he might not have had to look long or make many exposures to get the result he envisioned . He would need movement, faster than slower - a child running, a shopkeeper pushing a cart (perhaps not), kids kicking a ball down the street, a cat and dog engaged in flee and pursuit, or a cyclist... whatever the focal point may be, he had the setup and needed to be patient for both an otherwise clear street and the one instance of useful movement to draw the eye. That's a worthwhile setup.

You talk about some of your great photographs coming about by accident but I bet you recognize setups all the time even if at the time you aren't conscious of it. Do we take the time to exploit them might be an important question to ask.


Administrator Emeritus
Philly, Pa
Well, back in the day things were much different.
Shooters went for walks without as much distraction.
No cell phones, no iPads or computers. Not much legal issues or paranoia etc.
It was a more innocent environment.

So working a scene was easier and easier to concentrate. Less people, cars, bikes etc. there's an innocence in Bresson's work that is shared by many in his time. Today things revolve around a more hussel bussel world.
We areole tuned into television and thus our attention span is much shorter.

When I do a street workshop, the hardest thing for the members to do is just wait. Patience is a virtue long forgotten. Most will never wait to see the image develop. It's very frustrating.
So what we must learn from the masters is not what they saw or how or what they worked but how they thought. It's an easy thing to see how they thought but learning from that and applying that to our own work ultimately requires patience.
Some cracking pics there Nic.

Most of my street work is shot from the hip so often I don't know how good/bad the shot is till l8r. Sometimes I'll review pics on the screen but this is usually to check I have the exposure about right. My POV is much higher than my cameras so sometimes the shot is dramatically different to how I imagined it. All I can really do is try and be in the right place at the right time with the camera set up correctly. Don talks about patience and that is one thing I need to manage better. Sometimes I anticipate a good shot and blow it by hitting the shutter button way too early. Sometimes I try and avoid that by shooting on continuous but with a little camera like the GRDIV your buffer fills very quickly and the scene is past you in 2 shots time (3 if you are lucky). You really should nail it in one - spray and pray rarely pays off!

A lot of my shots are taken on the move and I often see shots develop just out of reach and the moment is gone before I'm close enough. I don't let that put me off. Better to see a missed shot than not to see anything at all. I see missed shots all the time, usually when I have no camera with me. I've been on a few shoots where I shot 100 plus pictures and went home to review them only to discover I had no memory card in the camera! Very annoying but I'm sure the exercise was all part of the learning process and it all helps you develop that photographic eye.


Hall of Famer
Brisbane, Australia
Thanks for the comments on this thread. Sorry, I hadn't gotten a good chance to read through them all until now. It's very cool to hear all your thoughts on HCB's methods and your own approaches to photography. Based on the images I saw at the exhibition, my impression of HCB's methods are like some of those already expressed; that he was a fisherman who found his spot and waited for the fish to swim past. Some seek out the moment, others wait for the moment. Different folks, different strokes. I really liked the slightly grander scale of some of his images and how the different elements helped reveal some of the secrets of the time and place where the image was taken. Over time I've taken to calling this environmental street photography where the people and the place are equally important to the image.

I'm not sure if the exhibition is moving on to another city anytime soon but would highly recommend a visit if you are ever in the vicinity of it or something similar.

How do the rocks in front of the sign relate to the exhibit?

I think they are a separate piece of art. They are part of a large set of concentric circles on the floor. The HCB exhibit was behind the sign on the other side of the wall.


I think they are a separate piece of art. They are part of a large set of concentric circles on the floor. The HCB exhibit was behind the sign on the other side of the wall.

Ah, thanks. I like such works. Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, etc.

The HCB exhibit was in San Francisco earlier this year and I should have gone.