If you want to be a great photographer it’s important to understand what makes a photographer great. Being great and thinking your great are two very different things. In the years I’ve been studying and practicing photography I’ve been intrigued by what characteristics are common among great photographers… If you want to know what it means to be great a good place to start is by studying those artists who were considered great.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the best (if not the best) street photographers of his time. The reason he stands out to me is because great street photography is so rare. I have always been intrigued by street photography. First, because I never saw any good enough to justify why people would pursue it and then because, after seeing truly great street photography, I wanted to be able to do it.
An important characteristic of great photographers is their ability to create images that others want to emulate, Cartier-Bresson was able to do this well. Besides, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Well, the internet says it is so it must be true. It seems like common sense once you think about it, of course you’re going to aspire to create images just like the ones that you yourself think are great… You aren’t going to try to replicate ones you think are rubbish.
Henri started out painting, he was born in France in 1908 and didn’t practice photography seriously until 1932. He described his approach to photography like this, ‘”For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.” It’s interesting that he described the camera like “a sketch book” because towards the end of 1968 he curtailed photography and spent his time sketching and painting instead.
Cartier-Bresson was clear about his disdain for augmented photography, an image enhanced by artificial lighting, darkroom effects, and cropping. He believed that the editing should be done in camera as you take the shot rather than after the fact. The fact that he shot primarily with a 50mm lens allowed him to train his mind to see the world framed like it would be on film, helping him compose more quickly and precisely.
Henri Cartier-Bresson pioneered photojournalism in the 20th century, making it a serious art and profession. He traveled the world, documenting the people and their lives in a unique way. He would sometimes cover his Leica with black tape to make it less conspicuous so he could capture images of people in their natural state, not reacting to their
souls photographs being taken.
When Cartier-Bresson was interviewed by Sheila Turner-Seed he was asked if he thought good photographers were good from the beginning, his answer was “I agree. Either you have a gift or you have none. If you have a gift, well, it’s a responsibility. You have to work.” Whether you agree with his statement or not it’s important to keep in mind that talent can and is often squandered while true skill is developed by years of hard work and discipline.
If we want to improve it’s important that we study those who came before us, it’s the same in photography as it is in any other craft. The best photographers in the world are usually able to give you two or three names of past greats that they draw inspiration from. Don’t limit yourself to photographers, painters have been a huge inspiration to many photographers (myself included). Dust off a book and get inspired.