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Learn Composition from the Photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Update: The Foundation of Henri Cartier-Bresson has asked that this article be taken down. Apologies.

“Do you see it?” This question is a photographic mantra. Myron Barnstone, my mentor, repeats this question every day with the hopes that we do “see it.” This obvious question reminds me that even though I have seen Cartier-Bresson’s prints and read his books, there are major parts of his work which remain hidden from public view. Beneath the surface of perfectly timed snap shots is a design sensibility that is rarely challenged by contemporary photographers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. © Martine Franck

Henri Cartier-Bresson. © Martine Franck

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 ____________.”

JAPAN. Tokyo. A farewell service for the late actor Danjuro held on November 13th 1965 at the Aoyama Funeral Hall (according to Shinto rites). 1965. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

JAPAN. Tokyo. A farewell service for the late actor Danjuro held on November 13th 1965 at the Aoyama Funeral Hall (according to Shinto rites). 1965. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

This piece could be titled “The Rotation of a box in Space.” Cartier-Bresson is really flexing his design muscles in this masterpiece. The design is focused on taking a solid form and rotating it 360 degrees in one frame.

This piece could be titled “The Rotation of a box in Space.” Cartier-Bresson is really flexing his design muscles in this masterpiece. The design is focused on taking a solid form and rotating it 360 degrees in one frame.

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.

An excellent figure to ground relationship in this image. More on that below. Belgian photographer Martine FRANCK. Photography taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1975. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

An excellent figure to ground relationship in this image. More on that below. Belgian photographer Martine FRANCK. Photography taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1975. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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:

  1. Establishing a Strong Figure To Ground Relationship
  2. Finding A Likeness in Disconnected Objects
  3. Shadow Play
  4. The Art of Waiting, not Hunting
  5. 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).

In order to understand the figure to ground relationship, squint your eyes. If you can see the subject with blurry vision, there is a good chance the relationship is good. MEXICO. Mexico City. Calle Cuauhtemoctzin. 1934. Henri Cartier-Bresson

In order to understand the figure to ground relationship, squint your eyes. If you can see the subject with blurry vision, there is a good chance the relationship is good. MEXICO. Mexico City. Calle Cuauhtemoctzin. 1934. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson alternates between light figure, dark ground throughout the woman’s body and then the door and the jamb.

Cartier-Bresson alternates between light figure, dark ground throughout the woman’s body and then the door and the jamb.

#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.

If you cant see the subject with your eyes squinted, the picture will have no carrying power and it will not work. India. Delhi. Government House. 1948. Left to right: Lord MOUNTBATTEN, last Viceroy of India, Jawaharlal NEHRU, Prime Minister and Edwina MOUNTBATTEN. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

If you can’t see the subject with your eyes squinted, the picture will have no carrying power and it will not work. India. Delhi. Government House. 1948. Left to right: Lord MOUNTBATTEN, last Viceroy of India, Jawaharlal NEHRU, Prime Minister and Edwina MOUNTBATTEN. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Light figures on a dark ground insures your subjects will be clearly understood.

Light figures on a dark ground insures your subjects will be clearly understood.

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?

When you put a light figure on a dark ground, the subject pops out. SOVIET UNION. Moscow. Gorky Park of Culture and Rest. 1954. Henri Cartier-Bresson

When you put a light figure on a dark ground, the subject pops out. SOVIET UNION. Moscow. Gorky Park of Culture and Rest. 1954. Henri Cartier-Bresson

A well lit subject will allow your street images to have pop. Otherwise your subjects will get lost in the background.

A well lit subject will allow your street images to have pop. Otherwise your subjects will get lost in the background.

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:

  1. Who is the subject?
  2. What is the background?

If these two questions get confused the picture will be a mess. This is called a Figure to Ground Relationship.

Is the figure to ground relationship becoming easier to identify? FRANCE. Alpes-Maritimes. Vence. February 1944. French painter Henri MATISSE at his home, villa “Le Rêve”. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Is the figure to ground relationship becoming easier to identify? FRANCE. Alpes-Maritimes. Vence. February 1944. French painter Henri MATISSE at his home, villa “Le Rêve”. Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.”

USA. New York City. 1959. George BALANCHINE, Georgian ballet choreographer, directing the American School of Ballet. Henri Cartier-Bresson

USA. New York City. 1959. George BALANCHINE, Georgian ballet choreographer, directing the American School of Ballet. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Here Cartier-Bresson ups the ante. He puts the light part of Balanchine against a dark background and his dark pants against the lighter floor. Notice how he places the head right along the break in value along the back wall.

Here Cartier-Bresson ups the ante. He puts the light part of Balanchine against a dark background and his dark pants against the lighter floor. Notice how he places the head right along the break in value along the back wall.

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.

FRANCE. Paris. Pont des Arts. French writer and philosopher, Jean-Paul SARTRE. 1946. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

FRANCE. Paris. Pont des Arts. French writer and philosopher, Jean-Paul SARTRE. 1946. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

When we squint our eyes, it becomes clear whether we have a picture or not.

When we squint our eyes, it becomes clear whether we have a picture or not.

#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.

I am not sure he could fit any more lances in this painting. The Battle of San Romano. Paolo Uccello

I am not sure he could fit any more lances in this painting. The Battle of San Romano. Paolo Uccello

Uccello takes the lance and repeats it to remind us this IS a battle scene.

Uccello takes the lance and repeats it to remind us this IS a battle scene.

Cartier-Bresson understood how paintings function. If he needed to make a point, he looked for background objects to support his idea.

GREECE. Athens. 1953. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

GREECE. Athens. 1953. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

The vertical is repeated to emphasize the subjects, which are the two women.

The vertical is repeated to emphasize the subjects, which are the two women.

Notice there is a similar geometry that dominates the shape direction of the horses head and the line running through the man. IRELAND. Dublin. 1952. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Notice there is a similar geometry that dominates the shape direction of the horses head and the line running through the man. IRELAND. Dublin. 1952. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Its a simple game of finding repeating patterns which are set on the 1.5 armature.

It’s a simple game of finding repeating patterns which are set on the 1.5 armature.

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.

SOVIET UNION. Moscow. 1954. Red Square. People in line to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

SOVIET UNION. Moscow. 1954. Red Square. People in line to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Dots and lines in the foreground, dots and lines in the background. HCB is really working out geometry problems in his head.

Dots and lines in the foreground, dots and lines in the background. HCB is really working out geometry problems in his head.

NETHERLANDS. Gelderland. Kampen. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

NETHERLANDS. Gelderland. Kampen. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

All of the diagonals run almost parallel to the baroque diagonal of the image.

All of the diagonals run almost parallel to the baroque diagonal of the image.

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.

INDIA. Tamil Nadu. Madura. 1950. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

INDIA. Tamil Nadu. Madura. 1950. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

There is a clockwise design of bony features in the image which moves our eye around the frame.

There is a clockwise design of bony features in the image which moves our eye around the frame.

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

ITALY. Salerno. 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

ITALY. Salerno. 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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?”

The contrast of a dark figure/light ground and light figure/dark ground might be easier said than done. ITALY. Sardinia. Cagliari. 1962. Henri Cartier-Bresson

The contrast of a dark figure/light ground and light figure/dark ground might be easier said than done. ITALY. Sardinia. Cagliari. 1962. Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

Are the stairs going up or down? M.C. Escher

Are the stairs going up or down? M.C. Escher

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.

FRANCE. St Tropez. 1959. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

FRANCE. St Tropez. 1959. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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?

This would have been a painting Cartier-Bresson would have known very well and it certainly influenced the image below. Dominion of Light by Surrealist Renè Magritte.

This would have been a painting Cartier-Bresson would have known very well and it certainly influenced the image below. Dominion of Light by Surrealist Renè Magritte.

It seems like Cartier-Bresson is playing off of Magritte’s “Dominion of Light” where day and night happen together. SOVIET UNION. Russia. Leningrad. 1954. The Admiralty and the monument to Peter the Great. Henri Cartier-Bresson

It seems like Cartier-Bresson is playing off of Magritte’s “Dominion of Light” where day and night happen together. SOVIET UNION. Russia. Leningrad. 1954. The Admiralty and the monument to Peter the Great. Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

This is the classic shadow “viewed from above.” Its a quaint trick, one that Cartier-Bresson mastered and moved beyond. INDIA. 1986. Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is the classic shadow “viewed from above.” It’s a quaint trick, one that Cartier-Bresson mastered and moved beyond. INDIA. 1986. Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

Is it a joke or is Cartier-Bresson granting this fulfilling this man’s dreams. INDIA. Gujarat. Ahmedabad. 1966. In the old town. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Is it a joke or is Cartier-Bresson granting this fulfilling this man’s dreams. INDIA. Gujarat. Ahmedabad. 1966. In the old town. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

Paris. 7th arrondissement. Hôtel des Invalides. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Paris. 7th arrondissement. Hôtel des Invalides. Henri Cartier-Bresson

If your figure does not land exactly on one of the diagonals, an alternative design used by artists, is to locate the subject on the vertical division at the intersection of the diagonals. Don’t worry if this sounds a bit complicated, I will explain if in greater depth with future articles.

If your figure does not land exactly on one of the diagonals, an alternative design used by artists, is to locate the subject on the vertical division at the intersection of the diagonals. Don’t worry if this sounds a bit complicated, I will explain if in greater depth with future articles.

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.

Is this a possible comment on the history of religions as the pyramid is overlaid on a gothic church? WEST GERMANY. Bavaria. Aschaffenburg. 1962. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Is this a possible comment on the history of religions as the pyramid is overlaid on a gothic church? WEST GERMANY. Bavaria. Aschaffenburg. 1962. Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is a great example which illustrates how a simple coincides of lines can create an effective design.

This is a great example which illustrates how a simple coincides of lines can create an effective design.

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

JAPAN. Uji. MANPUKU-JI Buddhist temple of the Obaku Zen school. At dawn, monks perform zazen, meditation, in the unheated dormitory set in a temple hall. Abbas

JAPAN. Uji. MANPUKU-JI Buddhist temple of the Obaku Zen school. At dawn, monks perform zazen, meditation, in the unheated dormitory set in a temple hall. Abbas

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.

The bottom left hand corner makes the entire picture. FRANCE. Paris. The Palais Royal Gardens. 1959. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

The bottom left hand corner makes the entire picture. FRANCE. Paris. The Palais Royal Gardens. 1959. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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?

INDONESIA. Sumatra. Rice fields in the Minangkabau country. 1950. Henri Cartier-Bresson

INDONESIA. Sumatra. Rice fields in the Minangkabau country. 1950. Henri Cartier-Bresson

A perfectly placed subject on the axis of the sinister diagonal and its reciprocal. It connects the woman in the foreground with the rice paddy and the group in the background.

A perfectly placed subject on the axis of the sinister diagonal and its reciprocal. It connects the woman in the foreground with the rice paddy and the group in the background.

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.

INDIA. Rajasthan. Purana Ghat Palace. 1947. Henri Cartier-Bresson

INDIA. Rajasthan. Purana Ghat Palace. 1947. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Once you get the hang of spotting the diagonals and their reciprocals, it becomes clear when to “BANG” the shutter.

Once you get the hang of spotting the diagonals and their reciprocals, it becomes clear when to “BANG” the shutter.

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.”

There is no chance of re-shooting this photo. Its a one shot deal, which he was able to capture because he knows what he is looking for. INDIA. Rajasthan. Udaipur. 1966. Henri Cartier-Bresson

There is no chance of re-shooting this photo. It’s a one shot deal, which he was able to capture because he knows what he is looking for. INDIA. Rajasthan. Udaipur. 1966. Henri Cartier-Bresson

This figure is set on the reciprocal of the sinister diagonal. HCB shows us there is plenty of flexibility within the design of the 1.5 rectangle.

This figure is set on the reciprocal of the sinister diagonal. HCB shows us there is plenty of flexibility within the design of the 1.5 rectangle.

INDIA. Delhi. GANDHI’s funeral. 1948. Crowds gathered between Birla House and the cremation ground. Henri Cartier-Bresson

INDIA. Delhi. GANDHI’s funeral. 1948. Crowds gathered between Birla House and the cremation ground. Henri Cartier-Bresson

The lone figure is not floating in space, but perfectly arranged on the sinister diagonal.

The lone figure is not floating in space, but perfectly arranged on the sinister diagonal.

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 major vertical of the image is set on the square. This is how the 1/3 should be employed. The Rule of Thirds is an watered down compositional average between the 1.5 and the Root 4. INDIA. Maharashtra. Bombay. 1947. An astrologer’s shop in the mill workers’ quarter of Parel. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

The major vertical of the image is set on the square. This is how the 1/3 should be employed. The Rule of Thirds is an watered down compositional average between the 1.5 and the Root 4. INDIA. Maharashtra. Bombay. 1947. An astrologer’s shop in the mill workers’ quarter of Parel. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

The rebated square is created by running a 45 degree angle from one of the corners. The photographic negative has a 1:1.5 proportion which is equal to (2) overlapped square.

The rebated square is created by running a 45 degree angle from one of the corners. The photographic negative has a 1:1.5 proportion which is equal to (2) overlapped square.

#5: Diagonals

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.

INDIA. Delhi. 1966. Drying saris at the Red Fort. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

INDIA. Delhi. 1966. Drying saris at the Red Fort. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

If there is one things that you can apply immediately to your images, it would be the idea of composing on the diagonal. FRANCE. Paris. The Quai St Bernard, near the Gare d’Austerlitz train station. 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

If there is one things that you can apply immediately to your images, it would be the idea of composing on the diagonal. FRANCE. Paris. The Quai St Bernard, near the Gare d’Austerlitz train station. 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

Here the sinister diagonal is effectively used to intensify the emotion of the woman. GERMANY. Dessau. April 1945. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Here the sinister diagonal is effectively used to intensify the emotion of the woman. GERMANY. Dessau. April 1945. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

As you look at HCB’s images more and more the diagonals will begin to leap out at you. INDIA. Gujarat. Ahmedabad. 1966. Women spreading out their saris before the sun. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

As you look at HCB’s images more and more the diagonals will begin to leap out at you. INDIA. Gujarat. Ahmedabad. 1966. Women spreading out their saris before the sun. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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?

USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1947. Henri Cartier-Bresson

USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1947. Henri Cartier-Bresson

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all” –Michelangelo

A regular street scene transformed because he waited for the diagonals to come into place and found a good figure to ground relationship. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

A regular street scene transformed because he waited for the diagonals to come into place and found a good figure to ground relationship. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

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.

If you can’t find any good diagonals at home, see if there are any laying around the house. Martine’s Legs. 1967. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

If you can’t find any good diagonals at home, see if there are any laying around the house. Martine’s Legs. 1967. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

A coherent geometry will bring unity to an image regardless of the subject. FRANCE. Region of Rhône-Alpes. The Ardèche ‘department’. Near Aubenas. People listening to French president, Charles DE GAULLE. 1961. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

A coherent geometry will bring unity to an image regardless of the subject. FRANCE. Region of Rhône-Alpes. The Ardèche ‘department’. Near Aubenas. People listening to French president, Charles DE GAULLE. 1961. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Conclusion

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.


 
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  • http://johngoldsmithphotography.com/ John Goldsmith

    Of course, much of this appears to be “correct,” and yet I feel as though I cheated on an exam; a girlfriend, perhaps. These are the Cliff Notes for HCB. While I’m all for education in photography, this exacting dissection is literally too graphic for anyone’s good use. The magic of these images is gone and is why HCB (and Winogrand), for example, never explained his work.

    Oh wait. Did you feel that? I’m pretty sure that vibration was “the anarchist” turning over in his grave upon hearing about this post. Yeah… I think so…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neoracer-Xox/1037144278 Neoracer Xox

    OHHH THE HUMANITYYYYYYYYYYYY

  • Robert Mang

    Thank goodness Henri is dead, ’cause this sort of intellectual deconstruction would surely make any professional photographer recoil in pain. Deconstructing art to find out what makes it good art is excruciating, and if someone attempts to use it as a formula, then it’s really beyond pointless. Sorry, but this stuff makes me crazy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/woodlink3 Woody O’Neal

    totally agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/woodlink3 Woody O’Neal

    Distilling the work to this level of elemental extrapolation is no fun.

  • David Sorcher

    Seriously folks, your resistance to examining the whys and wherefores of composition that makes Cartier-Bresson’s images work again and again is what i find most painful. Perhaps his approach was intuitive, but recognizing what is happening in these works is how we begin to instill that intuitive sensibility into our own work. Obviously as pure formula this will not create great works of photographic art. You still need to apply these ideas to great content and be able to capture the moments in a decisive manner as Cartier-Bresson has. But dissing this type of analysis and resisting it as a tool for learning is just ignorance at its worst.

  • Jake

    I think many of the naysayers here are only serving to prove how HCB was such a genius. The fact that he could quickly see patterns and shapes and understand intuitively what made a good composition without having to plan and deconstruct each shot he took made him a great photographer. The fact that most of the commenters here are calling any attempts towards artistic analysis BS just suggests that they can’t even fathom what it’s like to be as gifted and talented as HCB was.

  • carlosecpf

    One of the best posts I’ve seen on the topic. Really enlightening. Thanks to the author for sharing such deep analysis on the fundamentals of great composition illustrating it with the images from a photography master.

  • Alex

    Anyone else notice in the top picture, fourth row, second from the right is the picture commonly mistaken for an HCB image Petapixel posted about a while back?

  • Rullo

    I want to thank you Petapixel for this article. I love photography, have taken more than a few paid works, but I never had a formal education. At my 40 yo. (and thanks to the Internet) I’m discovering that a formal art education is needed to stand out from the crowd.

  • Usethisstuffinyournextimage

    Henri Cartier Bresson. You can abbreviate a lot of things in life-but out of respect for the Master Photographer that probably got you interested in your chosen hobby you could at least learn how to spell his name and take the time to type it out.

    Even if you’ve never studied composition to the depth that Mr. Marelli has you can at least appreciate some of the simple aspects of composition-rule of thirds, leading lines and chiaroscuro. Look at the pictures and try to figure out why your eye is being led around the image. If all you come away with is “look, there’s a man walking,” or Cool- the guy in the arch is on the 1/3 line,” it’s a start.

    These facets of a picture have been around for ages. If all the lines and what not are doing your head in-relax-take a deep breath. Close the page and come back to it later. Take it a little bit at a time and then come back for more.

    Better yet-get your ass down to the Library and check out some Art and Photography books and look up what Mr. Marelli is talking about-you’ll be pleased you did.

  • http://www.joushikijin.com/ Dénis Wettmann

    This article appears to me as it would do art analyses for the sake of art analyses and not the appreciation of good photography.

    Meaning can be found in everything if you try interpreting desperately enough!

  • Samuel

    It was around the time that my lecturer started drawing diagonal lines over HCB photos that i realised it was time to drop out of art school

  • http://www.facebook.com/duke.shin1 Duke Shin

    William Klein > HCB

  • dannybuoy

    A good article thanks. I’ve read a fair few book on these themes and this article manages to give you some useful take-aways in one page that some books don’t in a few hundred pages. Well written and engaging. Well done. The debate over HCB rages on. It’s arguable if we all came from wealthy backgrounds and had time to wander the great wilds of the world for months on end then we too would also develop a large bank of good work too. But unfortunately that time and money isn’t available to me. So I’m definitely in the ‘hunting’ for pictures camp. There’s no denying that we can sometimes take photos similar to HCB but usually when concentrating on one subject. He was the master of creating balance and shape across most of his images. I guess the aforementioned time allowed him to just find the shot, then wait an agonising time to get all the actors in position so to speak

  • Matthew Wagg

    I for one really enjoy these in depth discussions of the masters.
    The net is full of beginner and noob guides but far too few articles of this calibre.
    I’ve long studied art and as a photographer, too few photographers really engage with their subjects to produce work to HCB’s level. The dilution of the Internet and the amount of photographers producing work creates what Zak Arias calls too much noise and not enough signal. We need to be the signal, not noise.

  • http://byazrov.ru/ Byazrov.com

    It looks like there’s justifying of everything HCB did. He is a recognized genius and that makes one find perfection in every detail. Most of analysis is far-fetched. I read carefully and although there logic in all your red lines and captions, you as well could make the same justification for any photo from the internet if you had to…

  • Michael D

    I see the same thinking shown by some of the posters in my own field: there’s a very large group of people who resist knowing what they are doing, and insist they do just as well when they “wing it”. They are invariably wrong.

  • ennuipoet

    Damn good article! To those who feel this kind of close examination somehow lessens the impact of the art I am truly sorry you feel that way. Understanding the method and means doesn’t change the content, construction or emotion it contains. It is like saying a Gothic Cathedral is no longer beautiful after learning about the architectural planning which when into it’s construction.

  • Henri

    I think this sort of analysis is totally unnecessary and distracting.

  • lol

    O_o <_< sure lets get a perfect composition………. 10……9…….8……..7…… pow the moment has gone! ……but hcb did it! …. or maybe he just say: "there will be a time when cameras will have lines and compositions printed on the viewfinder… and this will be the end of photography"

  • Mike

    Is it OK for me to see this analysis as some sort of reverse engineering towards a cheap chinese knockoff?

  • http://twitter.com/Delowadesign Delowa

    bang, thats the sound of hitting the nail on the head, bravo!

  • syed IEDEI

    unfortunately your analogy is completely flawed. Photography is full of spontaneity and split second decisions….there is no spontaneity in planning and building a cathedral—-as it is a long, drawn out process.

  • Jake

    Sure, but just like any knockoff, anybody who knows what they’re looking for will be able to tell the difference. Just go to Flickr or Instagram and browse around to see a plethora of “knockoffs” by people who think they know what they’re doing but don’t really understand why it doesn’t work.

  • David Sorcher

    Mike, this is the same kind of compositional analysis that has been applied to great paintings for centuries. This isn’t some new idea of how great composition works, it is simply being applied to the photographs of Cartier-Bresson this time and shows how consistently he applied these concepts to his own work. This is not some great secret that was only understood by Cartier-Bresson either. All truly great photographers apply these ideas to their work. Try applying it to other greats like W. Eugene Smith and see if it doesn’t work. But Smith’s work doesn’t look like HCB’s work simply because they apply the same concepts of good composition to what they do. And no, i do not think this is “reverse engineering towards a cheap chinese knockoff”. Understanding how good composition works is the first step, pulling it off again and again and again in the field is quite another matter. Again, composition is only part of the equation. You still need to find great content to apply it to and be able to capture it clearly, concisely, well exposed, at the precise decisive moment. Also, these HCB images are moments of humanity that have been and gone, forever. They cannot be captured again simply with a “magic formula”. But knowing the basic structural theories that make for great composition make it all the more likely that when faced with new great moments of humanity that will happen in an instant and then be gone, you will be all the more prepared to capture them in the most visually appealing way. Of course, one must also be able to recognize the great moments.

  • On Point Images

    The Article is interesting, but this is no way represents a reasonable approach to taking photos. Holding your camera and saying “what geometric principal will be the most valuable or effective in conveying this subject” is off the charts useless. Being familiar with these geometric principals might come in handy in a more subconscious way, or might introduce you to a type of composition the did not come naturally to your own artistic eye. Really 99 times out of a 100 we look at a work of art and like or dislike it after a certain amount of viewing time. After this initial “feeling” we then attempt to find facts or principals that give “reason” to our natural emotional like or dislike.

  • Mrbeard

    I read this article then decided to have a wander about my town trying out diagonal framing, mind blown.

  • Decm

    Forget that whole article.

    Dont think.

    Feel.

  • Dan

    Talk about seeing the world through one prism… To reduce Henri Cartier Bresson’s photography to mere diagonals is almost heresy. Or it would be if it weren’t so one dimensional. And boring. But, yes the diagonals are mildly interesting. Just not even remotely as interesting as the images themselves.

    The example with the two old women walking under the two statues; this is a common device, one of comparison. Not geometry. And so it goes for many of the other examples quoted.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    I agree, and the problem is also that any system can be applied to Bresson’s images. Humans look for patterns i everything, even sometimes to the level of apophenia.

    I’ve seen similar analysis of his images using the Golden Mean, and a number of other design “absolutes”.

    The falsehood of this type of thinking is that we are assigning design constructs to images that the photographer likely never thought of before the fact.

    Yes, great photographers do design when they are shooting, and see the world in composition, and yes, having more knowledge of composition will help anyone make better photos, but this level of examination is really over the top, and leads to false conclusions about the ‘absolutes’ of creating images.

  • upstate johnny g

    Cartier-Bresson said that geometry makes great composition. Therefore he was aware of the geometry in his photos. So question is really whether the geometry was the result of an intuitive feel for composition or did he consciously practice making photographs using these principles until they became second nature to him and he followed them unconsciously. Remember, this was HIS way of creating bold images, of showing tremendous depth in a 2D image even though he was restricted to a limited set of artistic tools: f-stop, shutter speed, camera position relative to subject, and the ability to wait for the right light, the right moment. Also, he was working in black & white, so he had to think in terms of tonality and brightness, not color. The geometry then, I submit, becomes much more important to the impact of the photograph. You only have a palette of grays with white and black as endpoints, so you need something more to make a great image. I suggest a visit to Jay Maisel’s website for a comparison. Maisel was also first a painter. Color is extremely important to him, along with form. He has said that he “sees” the telephoto shot so that is what he uses. This is his natural way of seeing. His photos are very different from Cartier-Bresson’s but no less effective as photographs. Each artist presents his own vision of the world through his photography. For me, the point of this article is to challenge us to go shoot and develop or discover our own way of seeing and making effective photos by examining our photos in a more analytical, self-critical light.

  • http://www.facebook.com/merijnmulder Merijn Yona Mulder

    Word!

  • http://www.facebook.com/merijnmulder Merijn Yona Mulder

    Wow, one of the best posts ever on Petapixel. I dont see how people react so bluntly towards the fact that this merely offers a great insighs…. I think these people are just afraid that not abiding these rules will have ANY consequences… which it wont. Thank you Adam!!! you are a great addition to this website!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/merijnmulder Merijn Yona Mulder

    While the author is analyzing succesful pictures for clues, you take false conclusions by thinking certain clues lead to succesful pictures…

    If most successful americans come from New York, it doesnt mean coming from New York makes you succesful

    Its not the article you should be judging for leading to false conclusions…

  • http://www.facebook.com/merijnmulder Merijn Yona Mulder

    the spontaneity of the art of waiting included? :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.racey Jason Racey

    Overall this was a very interesting article. I noticed however that some of the diagonal line examples would fail the squinty eye test for grounded subjects. Gives the impression that some of this is made-up over-analysis.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Are you trolling just to troll? My comment says exactly the opposite of your supposition.

  • yonaphoto.com

    @bobcooley:disqus I dont know what trolling means… Construct your feedback ‘leads to false conclusions about absolutes’ please! It seems you have been reading the wrong books, as no respectable photography turorial book i have heard of would call the golden mean or the rule of thirds an absolute… and neither does Adam.
    If you do have websites or book titles with ‘superior’ analyses of photography compositions, please list them here, im sure there a lot of people interested in reading them (including me).

  • http://www.facebook.com/igor.kennn Igor Ken

    thanks for the article!

  • edrad

    Agree!!!

  • qiv

    Interesting thoughts and great selection in my opinion :-) But the “UNICEF portrait” side blow is in my opinion below the belt, given their support for Sebastiao Salgado …

  • Barthes

    calling the master Cartier Bresson by abbreviation is just downright lazy. Excellent article with some useful tips for all photographers. obviously these elements take a lifetime to learn. would i be wrong in saying that all photography involves a simple degree of premeditation with respect to the knowledge one garners by practice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lfelix Lionel Felix

    I was going to share this article. What a shame, I’ve not learned that much in one sitting about photography and this is such excellent content.

  • Tim

    Gutted! I bookmarked this about an hour ago and now it’s gone :(

  • http://twitter.com/dpredie duncan predie

    google cache is your friend

  • Julien

    its a shame, really interesting…
    no way to get the article by email? :) couldn’t read all…

  • Joe

    I can’t find it. help me.

  • Scott Isaacs

    I saw a talk that Adam gave for B&H photo s few months back that went over many of the same ideas as in this article. Really enlightening. You can find it on Youtube on B&H’s channel. It’s called Bridging the Gap, and it’s about an hour and a half in length.

    To all you who say that deconstruction is unnecessary and “ruins” the photography, you’re all idiots. Deconstruction is how all the masters learn their craft. Do some research on art history before you go bashing someone who has obviously done his homework and knows a bit about what he’s talking about.

  • Name

    me neither, has someone made a backup of it, please ?