Nov 112011

Wait for It

Patience is a game Cartier-Bresson

played all over the world.  He must

have sat for countless hours waiting

for just the right subject to appear.

Somedays the pictures came together

and other days they remained blank


Preface to the book “I Tempi di Roma” (Edizioni Bolis, Italy, 2000) written by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It reads “Time runs and flows and only our death can stop it. The photograph is a guillotine blade that seizes one dazzling instant in eternity.” Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Friday Thoughts

On this auspicious Friday 11.11.11, I wanted to give you a few pictures to think about over the weekend.  As many street photographers know, good images take time.  The special element that takes a picture from being an ordinary street scene to a masterful composition is usually one person.  Our work is not rehearsed, we are forced to wait for the magical moment.  The Italian archives of Henri Cartier Bresson show us that he was plays a waiting game with his subjects.  Sometimes he wins, others he loses.  His dedication brought him back to the streets everyday, until he beat the odds.  Have a look at a few of these pictures to see how Cartier-Bresson works.

The light on the floor is ideal. Its set on the diagonal, all he needs are the kids to be in the right place. But it never quite comes together. ITALY, Rome. 1959. Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is the same scene, from a slightly different angle. The only difference is the girl is perfectly composed. He nailed it! ITALY, Rome. 1959. Henri Cartier-Bresson.


All the elements are in place, but the design feels flat. The railing, the kids, the background, everything is too square to the lens. But…ITALY, Rome, Trastevere. 1952. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Same photograph as above, but he loses the distracting crowd in the background and swings to the right, cutting out the dark wedge on the right. Bingo! ITALY, Rome, Trastevere. 1952. Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is almost a classic Cartier-Bresson image. There is great variety in the figures, but there are just too many of them. He knows he almost has something, but there is too much contrast and too much activity. ITALY, Abruzzo, Scanno. 1951. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Once again, he cleans up the scene, waits for good variation in the figures and BANG! He wins again. Its worth nothing that Cartier-Bresson is rarely concerned with catching facial expressions. He does it sometimes, but nine times out of ten the design of the figure is the most important element. ITALY, Abruzzo, Scanno. 1951. Henri Cartier-Bresson

This must have been a practice photo or a test to see if the scene alone was strong enough. ITALY, Tuscany, Livorno. 1933. Henri Cartier-Bresson

How does Cartier-Bresson always manage to find a single man on a bicycle? And can you find the Surrealist Element in the picture? ITALY, Tuscany, Livorno. 1933. Henri Cartier-Bresson


See if you can play Cartier-Bresson’s composition game.


  • Find a strong city or landscape scene.
  • Make sure there is good lighting in the area where you would like a subject to appear.
  • Be sure to set a path for your potential subject on a major diagonal or a major reciprocal.
  • Then wait for the picture to come together.

If you need a little inspiration have a look through the Magnum Archives of Cartier-Bresson in Italy.

Enjoy-Adam Marelli


  21 Responses to “Henri Cartier-Bresson in Italy”

  1. Terrific article, thank you..

    Lets try that once more….

    • Thank you, happy you enjoyed the article. Its exciting when you start to see the motivations behind his images.

      Good luck following in his footsteps. Start with little steps and build up from there.

  2. Fantastic article.

  3. Rare Shots…

  4. Excellent article Adam, thanks for sharing.

  5. Master shots come in small quantity. If we photographers want to make art out of this unrecognized art tool, we have to do it like other great artists such as painters who spend lots of time on one work only.
    Henri surely knew that. His waiting time was part of his art.

    • Antony,

      You are absolutely correct. Good photography takes time and then it happens in an instant.
      Because we cannot assemble a scene like a painter, we are forced to paint with a broader brush.
      We wait, move our feet, and train our eye so the moment does not slip away.


  6. Adam
    Another lesson to learn and internalize. Thanks a lot.
    A question – have you an insight to share on the topic of visualization? Have heard a lot about it. But I seldom do it – inspire of setting out with the express intent of doing so. It seems I get into a “trigger happy” mode.
    Once again, thanks a lot for the teachings.

    • Hey Rao,
      I have many thoughts on visualization. Its one of the techniques I teach with my students. Without it, the photographer is just “trigger happy.”
      We are image makers and we usually find what we are looking for.

  7. Hi Adam,

    Thank you for an absolutely wonderful set of articles which I’ve only recently discovered and have been assiduously going through. It really helps to have someone with your talent and gift of sharing point to ways you can have a more intellectual appreciation of great works and a methodology to apply these principles to your own work.

    I’ve gotta ask though, since you pose the question – what IS the surrealist element in the last HCB photo? I came up with some including the shape of the shadow and the sunken boat. Was I close?

    Cheers and best regards, Phil

    • Hi Phil,

      Very happy to hear you discovered the site and are enjoying the articles.

      The Surrealist Element in the last picture is two fold. It appears that he adjusted his position slightly to allow the ladder on the upper right to connect with the shadow cast by the tops of the buildings. It runs around like an MC Escher drawing. The idea of up and down are turned on their heads.

      Then, as you spotted there is something funny with the boat on the left. Squint your eyes. That boat oscillates between being a boat in a canal or the top cornice of a building. Since the contrast on the boat and the canal are so strong, the simultaneous contrast throws the boat forward at us. Essentially it jumps up higher than it actually is in real life. These jumping forms and confusion of visual space is a technique employed by the Surrealists, though MC Escher certainly refined it.

      Can you see it now?


  8. Dear Adam

    is the bicycle guy in the last picture in a designed position. It feels right but i cant find a grid which nails him. All i found was a lower root 4 on the theme of 4 and he placed him on the intersection of the two diagonals of the second small root4 rectangle?

    Whats your opinion?


    • Hey Adam,
      me again. I found it. It’s nailed on the intersection of the sinister diagonal of the big root4 rectangle and the baroque diagonal of the second small root4 rectangle.

      Greets from Vienne

    • Hey Adam,
      me again. I found it. It’s nailed on the intersection of the sinister diagonal of the big root4 rectangle and the baroque diagonal of the second small root4 rectangle. Its great.

      Greets from Vienne

  9. Important to note that two of the boys playing cards have swapped places between frames, which balances the grouping in terms of both tone and size. The change is so smart compositionally that I suspect HCB may have directed it.

    I’ve come to this blog late, and have been enjoying the older posts. In fact, I probably would not have recognized the above change as a compositional enhancement had I not read some of your other articles on HCB’s work, Mr. Marelli. Bravo!

    • Hey Robert,

      Happy to hear the articles are connecting in your head. Its a good point you bring up, one which we may never know the answer to.

      My guess, and this is just a hunch, is that since HCB liked to hang around for a while, this is probably a shot that he took leaving his flat. These kids might have been there everyday and it would not be uncommon for them to be wearing the same clothes a few days in a row.

      But the alternative is that he asked them to re-order themselves. Also very plausible. Lastly, they might be playing a game that requires they switch seats. HCB could have waited for the right configuration. Maybe a Roman could identify the game we see here.

      Either way, great to see you looking deeper into the images and happy that you are enjoying the site.


    • Of course Henri could have asked the subjects to move, but I agree with Adam that there are also other options. I think there was a significant (but not very long) amount of time between the two pictures (change of shape of background shadow). If he asked the kids to move, why wait so long? Furthermore, they might have been playing an interactive game with varying participants (extra subjects in frame). Time and the hypothetical extra participants might explain the changed configuration of subjects.

      We will never know, and that’s all right.

  10. Its one of the most interesting blogs on photography I have seen but I presume he did it instinctively- everything was already inside him.
    .Incidentally your workshop is in Calcutta where I am . Hope you are enjoying your stay but today is a very dull day! Thanks

    • Sumit,

      I am very happy to hear you are enjoying the blog. As for HCB, I can assure you he was not born a photographic genius. Any of his early negatives reveal that.
      His instinct, is similar to that of a musician. After years of practice they no longer need to think about their next step. They practice, practice, practice, until they can improvise on the fly. His photography was just like that.

      We will catch up next time!


  11. HCB spoke and wrote clearly and adamantly that he was against directing people in his photos, so I’d be very surprised (and disappointed) if he in fact arranged the position of the two boys. That would make him a hypocrite. Personally, I don’t think that he was a hypocrite or that he directed the shot. Of course we probably cannot be 100% certain.

    • Hi Val,

      It does not seem HCB directed anyone. It appears that he returns to similar scenes, sometimes day after day.
      The game is about patience and waiting, not sure where you got the idea he was “arranging” anyone. I don’t
      think that is what he did.


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