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Cartier-Bresson: Zoom Lens is the Work of the Devil

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To See. To Learn to See.


HCB must have framed this and simply waited for the decisive moment.

I’m not sure if Henri Cartier-Bresson actually said that about the zoom lens, but it would fit with his aesthetic. He spent his life getting close to his subjects with a small Leica and its 50mm lens (which he used all his life). That camera and lens brought him in close and kept him there. Someone recently described the big zoom lenses available today as akin to hiding and shooting as a sniper.

What impresses me about the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson is his ability to capture something deep in people. A moment of reflection. He called it “the decisive moment” and it was gone as quickly as it appeared. Cartier-Bresson could irritate people because he would sometimes take a photograph before his initial bonjour.  But he also spent time just hanging around with his camera. People grew used to seeing it (the Leica) and him and he was quick to bring it up to his eye and put it down again: no big deal.


HCB caught Jean-Paul Sartre being Jean-Paul Sartre

In my quest to learn to see, Cartier-Bresson is a valuable guide. He photographed lots of famous folks (thinkers, artists and politicians—he shot Gandhi 15 minutes before Gandhi was, well, shot) and he captured lots of regular people—in a way that reveals a stunning beauty. Here’s a lovely collection of his Magnum photos. Two quotes from this remarkable man:

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.

For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously.

Seeing takes work and practice.


Image Credit: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Written by kirkistan

June 27, 2013 at 9:12 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] I quoted photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson likening his camera to a sketchbook: it helped him instantly sort the significance of an event. And […]

  2. […] with the natural attitude and bracketing experience to get on with his phenomenological work. Henri Cartier-Bresson always used a 50mm lens to capture the surrounding action, so his audience could see the central […]

  3. […] photographers work at getting composition right and so avoid cropping. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously accomplished that. Alec Soth gets this done too—though his process seems mysterious. The […]

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