Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Mind’s Eye Review

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Mind’s Eye book back in September and I finally had the chance to finish it a few weeks ago. It is a remarkable read that retrospectively challenges the nature of the gear obsessed photographer. “Photography hasn’t changed since its invention.” How many times have you thought your photography would improve if you had that bigger better camera or that faster lens?

If the art of photography hasn’t changed since the day it was discovered then to improve our craft we need to move away from climbing the equipment ladder and focus on improving and developing our photography eye.

1. Focus on Capturing the Decisive Moment

The great photographs don’t capture a view they capture the emotion of a single second. Take a look at the photographs you have taken over the last year how many of the images do you engage with emotionally?

Our passion shouldn’t be for photography but the desire to capture that decisive moment. Defining what we mean by the decisive moment is virtually impossible but I do think we know when we miss it.

How many times have you missed that shot you know would have been the perfect capture. You get the second before and the second after but you know there was one photo that you missed?

2. Engage in Photographic Reportage

I love the phrase ‘photographic reportage’, a single photographic capture should tell a story. The photograph shouldn’t be contrived or meticulously set up but be a natural moment that contains enough information for the audience to read the preceding moments and decide themselves what happens next.

3. Engage with your Subject

The concept of subject is all around us, we can’t escape it. The challenge is learning to select those ‘essential’ subjects that we need to communicate our story. Contrived photographs cannot capture the true reflection of a person’s world, something I will most certainly have at the forefront of my mind the next time I lift my camera to capture a portrait.

4. Be Pre-occupied with Composition

Composition is the recognition of a rhythm; it is the true art of photography. Moving the camera a few millimeters towards a subject can completely transform the resultant capture. Cartier-Bresson was a true master of composition.

Composition should be our focus and preoccupation. In many ways it is where the photograph is made and a badly composed image can seldom be rescued by reconstruction or cropping in postproduction. It is said Henri Cartier-Bresson shot solely with a 50mm lens. Perhaps the best way to master composition is to know a lens so well that is almost becomes an extension of the photographer’s eye?

5. Be less concerned with Technique

Henri Cartier-Bresson admitted that new chemical developments and processes brought with it new techniques but it was up to the photographer to decide what they did with them. In fact the book almost ignores technique altogether.

“I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique”……… “but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed into the subject of technique”..

Having read how important Cartier-Bresson valued the concept of the “subject” the idea of the technique becoming the subject should be a wake up call to us all.

Over the last few months I have become obsessed with trying to master long exposure photography. My engagement with photography had become the desire to discover new locations where I could capture my long exposure images rather than actually engage with the location as a subject.

In Conclusion : The Hope

My photographic priorities for the incoming year have been considerably simplified having read Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Mind’s Eye’.

1. Subject
2. Reportage
3. Composition

Better still focusing on Subject, Reportage and Composition doesn’t require a new camera body, more megapixels or a new lens. What they require is a change of attitude and a desire to capture that decisive moment. You can check the availability of ‘Mind’s Eye’ here.



Comments

  1. While I love the idea of photographic reportage, I do believe there exists great art in photographs that are “contrived” and have been meticulously created. For example, I just saw images Joe McNally made with the new D4. They are just a different kind of photograph or photography from what you are discussing here.

  2. Even in documentary photography the artist needs not be concerned with reportage if that isn’t the agenda. Even Bresson considered himself to be a surrealist.

  3. Simplicity of means is not simple at all! i agree with HCB about photos finding us, or the other way round! You must be prepared. Some young people seeing me with white hair and an old camera asked my advice for good photos..My reply,When you see something interesting, push the button!” There is no more.
    A standard lens, a simple direct camera, film or digital and you’re set. No long zooms, no distorting ultra-wides, no lens whose character overwhelms the subject. Good framing, using good geometry, but be quick,reasonable exposure and you are done.

  4. I read that book some time ago and agree it’s a wonderful read.
    I am currently teaching a Uni class and writing a paper on how the camera is but a tool to translate our vision. Every single one of us has a personal vision, a voice and the triumph is to translate that with our images, both for ourselves and others. Far too many, I believe get far too wrapped up in the camera and technology and never learn it well enough to use it for the 1/125 second (you get the idea) tool it truly is, HCB got this :).

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David

David is a documentary and landscape photographer covering everything from dramatic long exposure landscape photography through to live music. David is a former Official Fujifilm X Photographer.

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