Image of street life in front of a perfume shop in Luca, Italy. Photo by Eduardo Libby,

Henri Cartier-Bresson on Photographic Composition

Some articles tell you to stick to the principles of composition, and others tell you to break the rules in order to achieve stronger images. You might be surprised to know what Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote about composition in his book The Mind’s Eye!

The Mind’s Eye includes text from  his famous book The Decisive Moment in an essay on composition. I want to avoid quoting just sections because all too often quotations change meaning when taken out of context so here’s the whole thing. Bear with me for a few minutes…

Let’s see his ideas!

COMPOSITION

“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.”

So, by the act of including the elements of a scene into the frame we necessarily create an unique composition.

“In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment in which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must size upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it. ”

“The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail— and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.”

Movement of the subjects eventually reveals a composition but, when static, it is up to the photographer to search for it.

“Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture— except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button— and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace on it the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you will observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been formless and lifeless.”

“Later, to substantiate this, you take a print of this picture, trace on it the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.

 
Photographers, and I think most people, normally agree in which is the most appealing of a series of images of the same subject.

Image of women having a lively conversation in a Seville's Fair party. Photo by Eduardo Libby
A lively conversation in a Seville’s Fair party.

Up to here we might think this great photographer is only pressing the shutter at the moment the elements are arranged in one of the established composition schemes… but here follows an important paragraph:

“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move. In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed— and then it can be used only for a post-mortem examination of the picture. I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders; and that the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.”

So, the master of the Decisive Instant shoots what feels right, not what conforms to the rules or to a plan.

Image of Italian pizza makers having fun at Florence's Market. Photo by Eduardo Libby.
Italian pizza makers having fun at Florence’s Market.

“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.”

Cartier-Bresson chose to consider his uncropped prints his finished product but this is by no means what all photographers do. Just like him, many photographers strictly compose within the frame proportions of their cameras and their photos might be better appreciated without any cropping. However, this is not true for all of us: look at the incredibly powerful composition of the portrait of Igor Stravinski at his piano taken by Arnold Newman Click here!  If you Google the contact prints for the session and you will see the heavy crop he chose for his image. Click here! Also, consider W. Eugene Smith’s opinion about the 2:3 format : “The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera.”

 

Image of a bachelor's party on the streets of Seville. Photo by Eduardo Libby.
A bachelor’s party on the streets of Seville.

 

Image of young women in traditional dress and horse carriages at the Seville's Fair. Photo by Eduardo Lubby.
Young women in traditional dress and horse carriages at the Seville’s Fair.

I do not want to impose my views about composition and therefore I have kept my comments to the minimum. I hope you have enjoyed Cartier-Bresson’s essay. Do remember however that he was not a still-life or a studio-portraitist that can arrange his subjects at will!

What is your approach to making images? Does it differ according to the subject?

 

Image of street life in front of a perfume shop in Luca, Italy. Photo by Eduardo Libby,
Street life in front of a perfume shop in Luca, Italy.

 

Image of a lovely-dressed young girl admiring classic tiles from Seville's Alcazar. Photo by Eduardo Libby.
A lovely-dressed young girl admiring classic tiles from Seville’s Alcazar.
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