Update: The Foundation of Henri Cartier-Bresson has asked that this article be taken down. Apologies.
Words To Know
- 1:1.5 Ratio: The 35mm negative measures 36mm x 24mm. Mathematically it can be reduced to a 3:2 ratio. Reduced even further it will be referred to as the 1:1.5 Ratio or the 1.5 Rectangle.
- Eyes: The frame of an image is created by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. The intersection of these lines is called an eye. The four corners of a negative can be called the “eyes.” This is extremely important because the diagonals connecting these lines will form the breakdown of an image.
- Armature: When we use specific rectangles there is a system of connecting and intersecting lines that create a grid, or armature, which will form the composition. They are created by finding specific diagonal lines and their reciprocals.
- Gamut: As we will see there are 360° in the image circle of a lens. This creates more lines in any armature than we would like to use. The limited number of directions we use in a composition is called the Gamut. Good artists rarely use more than 5 or 6 in any one image. As Myron Barnstone taught me, if you use all the lines of the grid your picture will look like the bottom of a bird cage.
- Intervals: These are lines that are repeated throughout that create a rhythm in a picture.
- The Horizontal, Vertical, & Diagonal Lines: Artists have a very limited alphabet. At their disposal they have a point, a vertical, horizontal, diagonal line, and a curve or arabesque. In order to successfully design compositions all good artists and photographers organize schemes with straight lines.
- Major Lines: In an image we are creating a hierarchy. If there is no hierarchy it is very difficult for the viewer to understand what is important in an image. There is usually a single vertical, horizontal and diagonal line that dominates a composition.
- Reciprocal: This is a line that intersects a diagonal at a 90° angle. Introducing the reciprocal will strengthen an image by reinforcing the diagonal. But careful, it should support not compete with the diagonal.
- 1.5 Armature: There are two ways to break down a 1.5 rectangle. The most basic is the 1.5 Armature. It is created by drawing two diagonals from each corner of a negative. Then draw their reciprocals from opposing corners, which intersect the diagonals at 90°. Through the Eyes of the Diagonal and their reciprocals, draw vertical and horizontal lines through their intersections. The 1.5 Armature was a very popular method used by Cartier Bresson early in his career.
Keep these terms somewhere you can easily refer to, since without them it is difficult to navigate a composition.
Photography is a Verb
Why is Henri Cartier-Bresson such a good photographer? In order to answer this question, we need to understand what his pictures are doing. If you ever hear someone say “I like the work of Cartier-Bresson because it’s ____________.”
If the blank in that statement starts with an adjective, simply smile. It’s all you can really do. If someone really wants to impart on you the reasons why an artist is significant, they need to explain what the work is doing, not what the work looks like.
The description of a photograph’s brilliance, magic, intangible quality or decisive moment can only explain that someone feels strongly about a image. But if, like most photographers, you are looking to understand an image, these compliments are nice, but utterly worthless.
This is not to say the person does not have real emotion behind their feelings for Cartier-Bresson, the feelings are real. But in order to expand our own practice, we need to de-code the clues Cartier-Bresson left behind.
There are a number of resources we can study to better our understanding of Cartier-Bresson. He wrote a handful of books. He fielded a few interviews, but the largest view into his working methods are his images.
It is no mistake that during interviews Cartier-Bresson says “BANG” instead of click, when he talks about the moment he takes a picture. The magnitude of a wild scene which gels for a fraction of a second, into a coherent form, will explode on paper.
Charlie Rose went to Paris to interview Cartier-Bresson and asked, “What makes a great composition?” Cartier-Bresson replied, “Geometry.” Just like a Zen Master, whose answers are so simple a child could understand them, Cartier-Bresson reveals the fundamental secret behind his practice, Geometry.
In this article we will look at five ways in which Cartier-Bresson used geometry to distill life in the twentieth on to a 35mm negative. The goal of clearly communicating a visual moment can be found in the following categories:
- Establishing a Strong Figure To Ground Relationship
- Finding A Likeness in Disconnected Objects
- Shadow Play
- The Art of Waiting, not Hunting
- Understanding Diagonals
This article is designed to be a primer for understanding Cartier-Bresson as a photographer, not a historical figure. Much of what I have read on Cartier-Bresson never mentions how he worked or why he made certain decisions.
I wanted to share a number of ideas, some of which are my own conclusions, about how we can use the lessons of Cartier-Bresson to improve our ability to see. Once we develop a comfort level with this idea, our images will look noticeably different. (hopefully for the better, haha).
#1: Figure To Ground Relationship
The first time we pick up a camera we have an advantage. We know, without being told, that in order for a picture to be successful, our subject must be clear. This is why high school students take silhouettes of trees, people, and buildings. The pictures are usually very boring, but they are clear.
The early work of Cartier-Bresson does not hint at the great master he would become in later years. Simple portraits or clothing hung on a line to dry represent much of his early images. The difference between his work and the rest of us, was that as he matured he never forgot the fundamental figure to ground relationships. Why?
Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy background and was educated as an artist from a very young age. Under the guidance of teachers like Andre Lhote, Cartier-Bresson was educated as a painter.
Artists used to be taught that for an image communicate clearly, the viewer needs to be able to answer:
- Who is the subject?
- What is the background?
If these two questions get confused the picture will be a mess. This is called a Figure to Ground Relationship.
There are subtle distinctions that can be made within this tool, but the basic premise is as follows: “You need to have a light figure on a dark ground, or a dark figure on a light ground.”
It does not matter if your subject is a kitten or a battleship; it needs to stand out from the background, otherwise we have no idea what to look at.
As you study Cartier-Bresson images and compare them to your own work, try the following experiment. Look at a one of his images, say his picture of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and squint your eyes. Even with the details removed we can see there is a clear subject (a dark figure) on a bridge (light ground).
This may sound very simple. But you will be surprised as you look through the work of people who make street work (a term I use reluctantly) butcher this principle. In almost every single one of Cartier-Bresson’s images he establishes a strong figure to ground relationship. If we can do this, we are one step closer to advancing the quality of our work.
#2: Finding A Likeness
The Italian painter Paolo Uccello made a series of works depicting the battles around Florence. The pictures contain knights, swords, lances and angular objects of every shape and size. When using a visual language, repetition is useful. By repeating a visual form, like a pointed shape, we are constantly bombarded with a theme.
Cartier-Bresson understood how paintings function. If he needed to make a point, he looked for background objects to support his idea.
Photographers, especially in their formative years, focus only on their subject. They forget all about the background. Since we cannot paint in supporting ideas, we need to watch for shapes in the background to echo our subject. Cartier-Bresson framed the image to include the spokes of a wagon wheel that mimic the ribs of a starving child and then he pairs it with the bony fingers of their malnourished mother.
Why would he cut the mother out of the frame? Because the picture is all about bones. Everything in the picture speaks of skin and bones. The essential visual cues for that image do not need the expression on the face of the mother. Now most of us (myself included) would have been caught by the mother and child relationship. It was probably heart wrenching. But successful images convey a scene with total clarity.
The spokes on the wagon wheel, which may have rolled away a few seconds later, take the picture from being a pitiful UNICEF portrait to being a master-crafted photograph. So how can we avoid getting caught in the facial expressions of a scene? Squint your eyes. It will always bring us back to the geometry that Cartier-Bresson used to create every image.
Without our eyes squinted, the decision to use the wagon wheel stands out immediately. We look at the picture and now see “same/same.” The disconnected hand, child, and wagon wheel exist as one idea. The result is a picture which emphasizes the pain of starvation. (Notice the picture can be explained without adjectives.)
#3: Shadow Play
A photographer has the luxury of using light as a physical object. In reality a shadow has no weight, you cannot pick it up, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs away.
The dark shapes that elude us in real life take on real substance in a photograph. Simple uses include funny outlines like hand puppets or optical illusions like the camels photographed from a helicopter. But in true Bressonian style, Henri shows us there are other tricks we can play with shadows which will make our pictures pop.
While other photographers work around shadows, Cartier-Bresson uses them as little jokes, surrealist tools, and moveable backdrops to transform ordinary street scenes into photographs that make us wonder “How come I did not see that?”
As we discussed earlier “Figure to Ground Relationships” are one of the most important aspects of a successful image. We are constantly looking to place a light figure on a dark ground or a dark figure on a light ground. But what if we could find both inside of one frame? Cartier-Bresson found them all the time.
Instead of running from the harsh shadows of broad day light, he like to play games with the archways he found in Europe. He uses shadows as defining visual elements in a scene which shows the power of a well lit subject. When the unnecessary elements fall into darkness or over exposure, all that is left is the visual pleasure of focusing on a subject. Our eye bounces back and forth between the light and dark relationships.
It’s very much like looking at an M.C. Escher drawing. We cannot tell if the stair case is going up or down. In order to achieve this image all we need to do is keep a careful eye out for light and dark shapes. Then, if we can compose the image on a major diagonal we stand a chance of creating a optical effect that will engage our viewer.
In order to achieve this image all we need to do is keep a careful eye out for light and dark shapes. Then, if we can compose the image on a major diagonal we stand a chance of creating a optical effect that will engage our viewer.
As a young man Cartier-Bresson was influenced by the Surrealists. These jokesters of the early 20th century loved to combine two things that could never exist together. Painters like Magritte became famous for giving us a glimpse into a world of contradictions.
Cartier-Bresson found his surrealist release by using the shadow as an object. He stands subjects on the edge of shadows as if they were leaning out over a ledge. By positioning his camera to create the illusion that his figure is standing on a shadow, he gives substance to the weightless shadow. Is this a serious commentary on life?
Possibly — Cartier-Bresson was a life long anarchist. It seems that he is making a scherzo (little joke) about the instability of our everyday world. This scherzo also fits nicely into his Buddhists studies on the nature of the universe. The Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent. Everything is in a state of constant flux and the only reason we are blind to this idea (on a regular basis) is because of our limited perception.
A boy standing on a shadow seems to be a way to explore this philosophical dilemma. The shadow and the boy are a riddle which questions the ground we walk on and also a reminder that if things are impermanent, maybe all we can do is laugh to ourselves.
The admirable thing about Cartier-Bresson, which separates him from many contemporary photographers, is his clarity. His images do not need an explanation. We could meditate on this image long enough and its nature would reveal itself.
Unlike many of the index cards that flank photography exhibitions, we do not need to know very much about Cartier-Bresson to understand that we are looking at a photographer who has a deep rooted philosophical approach to looking at the world.
The last way Cartier-Bresson uses shadows is to combine two worlds which are normally disconnected. The later part of Cartier-Bresson’s professional career was spent traveling in India. For centuries India has practiced a social division, where certain classes never mix. This exists elsewhere in the world, but the caste system in India has secured its own infamy within world history.
While Cartier-Bresson was traveling, he mixed with the very top (Nehru and Gandhi) and the very bottom of India’s caste system. The anarchist in him probably found great joy in using his Leica to undermine societies artificial divisions.
In the “Ahmadabad Tower” he shows us a man asleep on a cart. The man sleeps in total peace on a cart in the street. We will never know what dreams occupied this nap. He could, like many of us, be dreaming of a better life. Meanwhile, as he dreams away, Cartier-Bresson elevates his status from a man on the street, and places him in a tower. Only the very wealthy can sleep in the guarded luxury of a hand carved tower.
As I study Cartier-Bresson’s work more and more, his compassion for strangers becomes crystal clear. He likes to find moments where he adds dignity to the under privileged or adds a sense of grace to the working man on a break. I can’t say for certain if he rebelled against his wealthy upbringing and fought for the underdog. It is possible. But more likely, he developed a compassion for people as he travelled the world.
Nothing will connect you more deeply to humanity as a whole, than the experience of traveling. Outside of our native countries, our skin softens and our hearts warm as we see people, more and less fortunate than us, interact with their surroundings.
Cartier-Bresson traveled relentlessly for almost forty years. No matter where you go, or how you get there, every traveler seems to agree on one thing — “Humans all over the world are basically the same.” Cartier-Bresson reminds us that our place in society is a matter of perception.
#4: Waiting, Not Hunting
One of the most puzzling aspects of Zen Buddhism, is the practice of Zazen. Zazen is the word for seated meditation, during which students sit in total silence and absolute stillness. From an outside view it would appear that nothing is happening. But what can a room full of motionless monks teach Cartier-Bresson about photography? Unlike the “attack mode” of street photography where people hunt for pictures, Cartier-Bresson’s pictures reveal a different approach.
A few years ago, I noticed a certain type of landscape image Cartier-Bresson always finds. The pictures are usually taken with a 35mm or 50mm lens of cityscapes or country side. They are classical landscape images. There is a foreground, middle ground and background. The strange thing is there are people in the image, but they are tiny. How is he able to arrange a balanced landscape shot with the cooperation of a person who is hundreds of feet away?
Cartier-Bresson falls back on his training as a painter. When he finds an ideal view “I wait, like an insect waits” — Igor Stravinsky. There were certainly many days where no one came down the path, up the stairs or emerged from the trees. These are not pictures for the impatient photographer. They are created in two parts. First Cartier-Bresson takes out an dynamic view from above. He looks for a view that has tremendous distance, a slightly elevated angle, and multiple levels. So how does he place his subject? He waits from someone to land on the major diagonal. Once this happens the entire scene comes alive.
Myron recounted a story to me one time about the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. He promised a painting to an art critic friend who wanted to pick up the finished painting. The picture was almost complete, but Morandi insisted it was not finished yet. The critic said, “Fine, I will sit here as you finish it.”
Morandi sat in front of his easel. On the edge of the easel was a ledge piled with paint. The great mound of mixed colors were the discarded globs from his palate knife. He sat motionless in front of the painting. Watching and waiting, he finally mixed three colors. Then with a flick of the palate knife he added a few final touches.
The critic exclaimed, “AH thats it! It’s done.” Morandi turned and nodded. The painting was complete. The critic recounted that it was as if someone flipped a light switch and the whole painting came alive. Myron then reminded me that “This Art thing is such a delicate game, thats really all it takes, just a few touches between dead and alive.”
The famous Robert Capa mantra “If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough” does not always apply. Cartier-Bresson shows us that photography is a finesse game. It requires careful observation, patience, and a trained eye that recognizes when something is missing. Without the final character the photograph is dead. The photograph is a pointless landscape, devoid of significance. Once the distant figure comes into place, the light switch flicks on for a second and the whole moment is permanently alive within the frame.
The final clue Cartier-Bresson leaves for us is to compose an image along the diagonal of the frame. Forget everything you have ever read in photography magazines about “”The Rule of Thirds.” Cartier-Bresson never talked about this idea. He used the vertical third in his images, but in his mind it was the rebated square not a third. The rebated square is an entirely different design tool than thirds.
The next time you pick up a Cartier-Bresson book or browse his images online, look at the corner to corner relationship in his images. What you will find is shocking. An overwhelming number of his images rely on the major diagonal. In this article I will not get into the more technical terms of the Barque and Sinister Diagonals and their reciprocals. We will just focus on the powerful compositions which result from a strong corner to corner relationship.
How can you start practicing this yourself? As I recommend to the photographers I tutor, go out on find long diagonals in real life. They can be broken street lamps, tree branches, or cracks in the sidewalk. It does not matter. All you are looking for is a line that runs from one corner to the opposite corner. After a small amount of practice it becomes easier to visualize diagonal compositions.
The second step is to connect dots the on a diagonal. We have been connecting dots since we were children. We connect the dots in coloring books or by tracing stars in the sky. It’s really very easy. Go out into a crowd and start connecting heads along a diagonal line.
At this point you will start to see how Cartier-Bresson uses the diagonal to animate an image. The diagonal is the longest possible line in a rectangle, thus making it the most dominant, if it is used properly. He imagines a line running across his view finder and once he sees two subjects in alignment, BANG! He’s got the image.
It is a very basic idea that many people never incorporate into their work. It is also the basis for forming more complex shapes like spirals and swirls. But first you need to understand how to use a diagonal. How important is the diagonal to a composition?
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all” –Michelangelo
When Charlie Rose asked Cartier-Bresson “What makes a great composition?” The answer was simple “Geometry.” Then Charlie goes on to ask “Are you born with it?” Cartier-Bresson replies, “It has to be cultivated.”
As students of Cartier-Bresson, we must start at the beginning with a single diagonal. Once we are comfortable with the point to point relationship of the major diagonals we will start to understand his entire body of work in a whole new light.
The wordy descriptions that clutter the exhibition walls of an HCB show will begin to have real meaning to you as a photographer. It will be as if someone opened the Master’s tool box and allowed us to peak inside. Underneath the surface of his images exists a “subterranean geometry” that is accessible to everyone. And once we employ the techniques, which lay hidden in his pictures, we can develop a body of work that people “like, but cant explain why.
A study of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work could occupy a lifetime. But as photographers, we would like a quick set of guidelines to improve our images. All of the advice we need is contained in his pictures.
Fortunately for us, we do not need to wait a lifetime to apply his techniques to our images. His books are easily obtained and there are thousands of images online. A student of Cartier-Bresson must move beyond open mouth drooling of the museum goer to understand why his images work so well. A clear understanding of design will allow you to see into the DNA of his images.
Once the dots are connected it becomes clear why he is considered one of the greatest photographers of all time.
About the author: Adam Marelli is an artist, photographer, and builder who lives in New York City. He holds popular photography workshops year-round around the world. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.