All takes to be a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, is “one finger, one eye and two legs”. Then, Cartier-Bresson must have possessed one of the best eyes in the business. Born in 1908 in Paris into a wealthy family, Cartier-Bresson had a lusty, rebellious hunger for travel. With a head full of Rimbaud and a copy of “Ulysses” under his arm, he set off for west Africa in search of adventure. (He aspired to be a painter, but Gertrude Stein suggested he drop the brushes).
He bought his first Leica in the Côte d’Ivoire when he was 23. It fitted into his pocket, along with a few rolls of film. With this new and light equipment — it and rolls of film fitted nicely into coat pockets — Cartier-Bresson would document everyone from Balinese dancers and Mongolian wrestlers to Spanish matadors and New York bankers. When snapping a spectacle—be it a coronation, a sporting event, or a parade—he trained his camera on the unsuspecting bystanders. He would wait until that “decisive moment” when the right composition filled the frame. And it all came so naturally, too: he rarely used a light meter, checked his aperture setting, took more than a few shots of a single subject, and almost never cropped his photos.
The photo above was taken in 1932 in Hyeres, a small town on the French Riviera, and has been featured in many retrospectives on Cartier Bresson’s work. The decisive moment here nicely juxtaposes the fleeting biker with the spiral staircase; the poignancy of the moment is accentuated by the fact that although the photo seems as if it was taken accidentally or on the spot, we can also imagine Cartier-Bresson crouching over those railings in Hyeres for hours, waiting for the right instant. I choose the image here because of a funny internet-age back story. Without mentioning that it was taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, someone has posted the photo in a flickr group for public criticism. Most commentators ripped the photo apart (especially the blurry biker part) in the comments that are scathing and hilarious. De gustibus non est disputandum, indeed.