Today (August 22) is the birthday of one of the greatest photographers of the last century, Henri Cartier-Bresson, born August 22, 1908. He died in 2003 at the age of 95. He is often called the father of modern photojournalism.

Cartier-Bresson was one of the early adopters of the 35mm format. He is famous for shooting with a Leica Rangefinder and a 50mm (“standard” view) lens. This is supposed to be a photo of Cartier-Bresson’s first Leica:
Henri Cartier-Bresson's first Leica Recently, somebody in one of the forums I am active in asked, what camera would Cartier-Bresson use today? It’s an absurd or at least idle question, of course. It’s hard to imagine Cartier-Bresson existing today, for lots of reasons. But never mind; people eagerly offered their guesses. The fans of micro four-thirds cameras thought he’d be using an Olympus Pen or a Panasonic GH1 because they’re so compact. The devotees of full-frame thought he’d be using a Nikon D3 or Canon 5D because they’re fast and very sensitive, so you don’t need flash. Bresson is famous for eschewing flash completely, saying that using flash is “impolite,” like bringing a loaded pistol to a concert. Somebody even suggested he’d be using a digital Leica, but I doubt it. Me, I’m pretty sure he’d be using a weather-sealed Pentax K20D with one or two of Pentax’s limited prime lenses, perhaps the 40 f/2.8 and the 21 f/3.2.

Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams represent, I think, antipodes of twentieth-century photography.

Adams almost never photographed people, used large cameras, was a technician’s technician, painstaking in setting up his shots and painstaking in processing and printing his photographs afterwards. Adams said that the negative was like the score, and the print like the performance. Cartier-Bresson almost always photographed people, and while I don’t know as much about his methods as I’d like to know, his photos always appear to be “spontaneous.” He said that his photos were like sketches, rather than paintings. And Cartier-Bresson was not interested in dealing with his own photos after he had taken them. He never cropped and he left the making of prints to others.

Adams’ great work was done in North America—largely in the western USA. Cartier-Bresson shot all over the world, from China to Harlem, from Mexico to Nazi Germany.

Adams, shooting landscapes, seemed to be striving to capture a timeless beauty. Cartier-Bresson on the other hand sought to capture the fleeting “decisive moment”.

Adams was frequently photographed himself and his face is well known to fans of photography. Cartier-Bresson was one of the shyest men of his century and we have very few photos of him. Once, when accepting an award, he held a paper in front of his face to prevent photos.

I admire Adams. I love Cartier-Bresson.

Happy birthday to you, Maestro! I pray that you intercede for me with the Father of Light. May He grant me good light next time I shoot, so I won’t have to use flash!

P.S. It’s not hard to find Cartier-Bresson’s photos on the Web, but I just remembered that Dallas’s superb After Image Gallery has a wonderful selection of his photos for sale, and there are copies online here.


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