Is HCB stIll relevant in the digital age?

I know what you are thinking. Some of you would wonder what the heck HCB might stands for. And some would be appalled at a rather crude suggestion that the Master’s name could be used as a mere three letter abbreviation.

Don’t get me wrong though. For us here at Street Photo London the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson is associated with almost a God-like figure, the founder and true master of what we call nowadays Street Photography. Being one of the founding members of Magnum Photos, the man himself would not call his style of photography “street” though. For Henri Cartier-Bresson it was photojournalism all the way. For some other Magnum photographers, like Constantine Manos, the terms Public Domain or reportage photography are more appropriate definitions when describing shooting pictures of people on the street.

Street or not, the work and legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson still ignites passion in the hearts of many of us Street Togs. His supremacy is simply undisputed. Using a Leica II camera and working with the very slow film speeds of ASA 6 to ASA 25 and the widest lens aperture of f3.5 when some of his best known images were taken in the early 1930-s, one wonders how he managed to pull it off. In recent years the photo enthusiasts and professionals have been inundated with propositions of newer better faster and more advanced features in ever growing digital camera offerings. Who, would you ask, cares about what it used to be like some 80-90 years back?

And that is exactly my point here. Does it matter how and what tools you use to achieve the desired results in Street Photography? It is not a sport discipline, neither it is a competition of who gets there (wherever “there” is) first. What really matters is the resulting image that equally surprises and captivates the viewing audience.

Leafing through Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most celebrated publication “The Decisive Moment” for the umpteenth time I can’t help halting at certain places of the book and musing on what the Master himself thought of picture taking at the time of writing the foreword for his book in 1952:

“Things-As-They-Are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything. It is essential to cut from the raw material of life - to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination.”

Mind you that this is coming from the guy who despised the post-processing and cropping of his images. Surely Cartier-Bresson doesn’t mean altering and cropping the film images in post. Most likely he simply implies that one has to be selective when shooting life as it is.

And without breaking his stride he goes on in the same spirit:

“While he is actually working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do. Sometimes you have the feeling that you have already taken the strongest possible picture of a particular situation or scene; nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance exactly how the situation, the scene, is going to unfold. You must stay with the scene, just in case the elements of the situation shoot off from the core again. At the same time, it’s essential to avoid shooting like a machine-gunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings which clutter your memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole.”

Clutter your memory?! Then it is all explained in the next paragraph of the foreword:

“Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you’ve taken while you’ve been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.”

I have to admit that this couldn’t be said any better. And that is what makes Henri Cartier-Bresson himself and his wisdom timeless. As an afterthought, I’d like you to ponder over the image taken at the back of Liverpool Street Station (see above) on one wet miserable afternoon and try to compare it to the one taken by Cartier-Bresson at the back of Gare Saint Lazare in Paris in 1932 (Place de l’Europe). On the surface of it you’ll find lots of similarities, like a jumping figure of a man in his full stride, his reflection on the wet surface with the front foot just about to hit the ground...

And then again the above image was shot on a modern digital camera at ISO 1000 and shutter speed of 1/125 of a second and digitally inhanced in post-processing. Could it really stand up to the snap Henri Cartier-Bresson took on his film camera through the gap in the fence? Quite possibly not, not even close. And this is yet another proof that HCB will remain relevant as long as the photography exists in any way, shape or form.


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