Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30
If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.
This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.
He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.
And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.
That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.
The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work. We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.
What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.