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Cartier-Bresson Has My Back

14 February 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


When I wrote previously about flash-lit photography being overwhelming and even aggressive, I felt a little out on a limb. I have no desire to take any of it back, but I wondered if, in quoting Henri Cartier-Bresson, I had been a bit aggressive with his ideas. Whatever my philosophy of flash light on cameras, it appears that I have no problem with overwhelming prose.

But then I read the following words, taken from the same book: “If, in making a portrait, you hope to grasp the interior silence of a willing victim, it’s very difficult, but you must somehow position the camera between his shirt and skin.” (Emphasis mine.)

Apart from the humorous and wonderful picture of the intimacy required to capture the “interior silence” of a person, I am struck by his reference to the “willing victim”. There is something to think about! So many moderns continue to regard the camera as something that can capture their soul (you can tell because they shrink and shy and scurry away when you point it at them … maybe such people are unsure of the state of their souls? What will the photograph reveal?), and some photographers still believe it too, fearing to take something that has not been offered willingly (maybe they are right to fear).

A photographer has to come to a peaceful agreement with their subjects. “They” have to become a willing victim, and you in turn have to promise not to abuse them (by shooting when their mouths are full, or whatever). But the camera still captures something and then “it” ceases to be free. My idea that a kind of violence may happen when a picture is taken is sustained, and I still believe that the flash on most cameras is the guilty of the biggest crimes.