Mar 072012

Henri Cartier-Bresson

There were many games that

Cartier-Bresson played with

his photographs.  The

anarchist in him liked to test

the limits of a photograph.

When he butts up against those

limitations he uses the 2D

effects of the picture plane to

his advantage.  Lets look at how

and why he does this.

USA. New Jersey. Model prison of Leesburg. Solitary confinement. 1975. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Outside of the Box

There are a handful of artistic terms which are terribly abused.  Words like Creativity, Originality and Genius are applied with such reckless abondonment that a young photographer would have a tough time deciding, who is actually a good photographer and who is just a gimmick.

In order for anyone to think “outside the box” its important to understand what “box” is being discussed.  When it comes to Cartier-Bresson’s Surrealist photography (a term he preferred over photo journalism) the “box” refers to the difficulty of depicting a 3D scene on a 2D surface.  Remember a photograph is dead flat.  Depth is an illusion that is either enhanced or diminshed based on the skill of the photographer.

As an example, any yo-yo can take a picture of the ocean towards the horizon.  In fact there are millions of terrible sunset pictures taken every evening.  Just because the photographer shoots a scene with great depth will not guarentee that it will read.  In fact the further objects are from the photographer the HARDER it is to create the illusion of depth.  That is why the Hubble Telescope looks like it is beaming back Abstract Expressionists paintings.  Creating depth on a flat surface well, is a tough business.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Soviet Union Armenia, Erevan. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

There are an immediate set of challenges presented to the photographer because they observe a world with depth, but only produce flat images.  Fortunately for Cartier-Bresson he had a formal education in classical drawing.  (In case anyone is curious, you do not need to know how to paint to be a photographer, but if you learn how to draw it will prove fantastically useful)  His most influential teacher Andrè Lhote taught Cartier-Bresson the tools that artists employed for centuries to combat the flatness of the picture plane.  He was shown how to use grids, geometry, passage, simultaneos contrast, arial perpective, radiating lines and a host of other artistic conventions.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Is the classical model really dead? I doubt it. TURKEY. Pergamon. The Acropolis. 1964. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Rules, Laws, Conventions, & Tools

Many message boards, forums, and comment sections on blogs get hung up on the ideas about artistic rules.  The novice, unable to thread a connection between good and bad artists, concludes there are no rules in art.  This is not true.  They exist, but not in a rigid sense.  Here is an example:

A white mark on a gray ground will establish a relationship of light and dark.

The “rule or law” of simultaneous contrasts states that if you have a neutral ground (medium gray) and you lay a white mark down, it will read with a certain intensity of contrast.  The gray appears dark next to the white and vice versa.

When you add a black mark next to the white it makes the white brighter and the black seem darker.

The second you add a black mark adjacent to the white mark, the white will appear brighter, the black will appear darker.  Additionally the gray background will now appear darker on one side next to the white and lighter on the other side next to the dark.  Can you see this?

Now just so everyone is clear, THIS is not MY rule.  It was given to me by my art teacher as it was given to him by his teacher.  We don’t own these rules, we are merely custodians of them for the next generation.

The view of a square on the left and a chevron on the left. These are two completely flat images.

You can call it a rule, a law, a convention or a tool.  The name hardly matters.  The important thing is that you know what it is, how to use it, and where to find it when you are looking through the viewfinder.  If these terms are confusing or new to you, my recommendation is that you take up study with someone who knows them and can explain how to use these tools.

Otherwise you end up with a tool box full of stuff with no user manual.  I mean you can use a compass to skewer a shrimp, but wouldn’t it be better to use it to draw a circle?  Further more, wouldn’t it be great if you could draw a circle, sphere, isometric ellipse and an arc?  Can you see what I am getting at here?  There are a number of tools that are potentially at our disposal, but we need to learn how to use them properly.  Then we can bend, break and distort the rules to our hearts content.  Lets have a look at where Cartier-Bresson played with the 2D element of a photograph.

When we see 3 sides, like the shape on the left, a 2D illustration starts to read like a 3D form. The shape on the right fails for obvious reasons.

Erase the Mistakes

Cartier-Bresson was famous for destroying the negatives he disliked.  Before the start of World War II he cut up all his rejected negatives before he was put in a POW camp.  Presumably, many of his early failures were on those contact sheets.  In fact I am positve the contacts were filled with mistakes.  Everyone’s early contacts are a mess.

If you turn a cube so it looks like a square the "Leading Edge" will face the viewer.

In his early work, he learned how to create the illusion on the third dimension by employing a number of artistic conventions like properly overlapping forms.  It was a tool he used over and over again to give us a huge sense of the world in a tiny 35mm negative.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Here he uses the leading edges of the box to divide the spaces. MEXICO. Santa Clara. 1934. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

But overtime, he wanted to experiment and see what would happen if he flattened the image out again.  Picasso once said that “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  In his exaggerated quote here, Picasso is saying that convention is easier to master, because someone shows you how to do it.  In this case Picasso’s father was an art teacher.  He taught the young lad how to paint.  As a result he was producing promising work as a twelve year old.  But once you understand the conventions of artists, you will have a new problem on your hands.  What can I do that is not just a repetition of their work?  What happens if I selectively break some of the rules I was taught?

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Taken from this angle everything is a flat assembly of form. Ajaccio. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Breaking the Box

When Cartier-Bresson starts to produce images that are two dimensional, he discovers that when you square up to a scene by making all of the verticals plumb, something curious happens.  The image becomes totally flat.  There is no depth, no recession.  The figures float in an abstraction of rectalinear shapes.  The scenes read like dreams.  The dream scape was a preoccupation of most of Surrealists, including Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Calvi. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

By removing the 3D effect of the box, he starts to unveil observations about how people interact with each other and architecture.  If, however, he wanted this tactic to work, he needed to employ a number of addition techniques for the image to read.

  • There needs to be a critically strong figure to ground relationship.  Since the figures are often small they need to stand against highly contrasting grounds whether they are dark doorways or bright skies.
  • We can not be allowed to see the side of the box, otherwise it ruins the illusion.
  • All single point perspective lines need to be elliminated.  The second that “depth” is reintroduced the picture will wander back to the realm of mediocraty (unless there is a lunatic raging to escape, see picture below).
Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

ITALY. Liguria. Genoa. 1953. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

City Life

When you grow up in a small town, everyone knows each other.  I grew up in a town of ten thousand, every misstep I took was reported back to my parents.  But in a big city, anonimity is the rule.  No one knows who we are or what we do.  Life in a city means that only a wall might divide the activites of perfect strangers.  Unless we go around peeling off the faces of buildings, there is a challenge in how we depict the vignettes of city life.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Pierre Josse in Giacometti's studio. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Cartier-Bresson found this to be an engaging task, one which he would photograph in Europe, America and Asia.  He locates scenes where we are shown a series of doorways, windows, or even full rooms.  Inside the confines of a frame he waits for moments when a single figure is in view.  The pictures show people connected by proximity, not by interaction.  Each of the subjcts may be going about their own life, within arms reach of another person.  And just like any technique, he starts off simply by focusing on one figure in a doorway like in Portugal and finally moving to his masterpiece with a staggering seven figures in France.

The Square versus the Cube

In Cartier-Bresson’s early experiments, he looks for scenes where a few isolated figures exist within a rectangle inside of his picture frame.  The scenes in Japan, Italy, and France all show us the side view of a box with figures inside the frame.  It freezes in eternity, moments of these people lives as if we were watching two television screens at once.  What he sacrifices with depth, he makes up for with careful figure placement.  The picture is successfully flattened.  The space between the figures is compressed.  From our point of view they exist in the same space, even if from their point of view they may be spread apart.  Its fascinating, once we key into his game to understand how he manipulates space by positioning his camera in a specific location.

It sheds more light on to his “2mm quote.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

JAPAN. Noh rehearsal. 1965. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Inside Outside

When Cartier-Bresson was in Japan, he photographed a Noh play from a curious angle.  Once again we see him square up to the scene, which eliminates perspective all together.  We are left with a view of the woods and a cut away view of a house.  The contrast of the performance and the forest is played against the wood post that divides the scene vertically.

Now if you want to get into the commentary of the wood being a component of the forest, which has been manipulated by man and then the product is the play on the interior, that is all good.  You CAN have that content based conversation.  But its important to understand why that conversation is even possible.  It is only because he employed his design technique successfully that the picture functions.  The axiom of form following function could be restated that “if function is to exist, it needs proper form.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

PORTUGAL. Beira Alta. Lamego. 1955. Man repairing shoes in his house. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS


Not every attempt was successful.  And if you are like me, you might look at this picture and say “I have taken a picture like that and I don’t feel like Cartier-Bresson.”  Well thats because if we take these ideas at their most basic form they are nothing special.  We will just create a bunch of flat pictures, like this one above.  It is flat, it does have good figure to ground relationship, though it is poorly lit, and suffers from camera shake.  It is so stripped down that all we are left with is a floating head.  It may be artistically correct, but its just boring.  This can happen.  Just because you use a $1000 chisel, it won’t guarantee that you will make a nice chair.  Or in our case, just because you use a Leica won’t be insurance against bad pictures.  We need to take the rules, laws or conventions and apply with layered complexity in active scenes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

FRANCE. The Alpes de Haute-Provence 'department'. Town of Simiane-la-Rotonde. 1969. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS


The scene in Simiane la Rotonde is one of Cartier-Bresson’s finest photographs.  It must have been a scene that he walked upon and knew “Oh dear God, do I have a picture here.”  It is, for all intents and purposes dead flat.  There is a slight amount of perspective on the left wall and in the ceiling, but they are so subduded in comparison to the figures.  It hardly matters.  What does matter is the brilliant layout and seperation of four groups of people in a space.

If we take an closer look at the placement of everyone we will start to see the mastery, and I do not use that term lightly here, in the photograph.  Based on the lead up of all the articles you have read to date, lets see how this photograph falls into our criterion.

Figure to Ground Relationship:  We have all dark figures on a light ground.  It works.

  • Aspective Views: We have clear views of every figure, including the dogs.  There is only one figure on the far right that is a little clipped, but if you can get seven good views, TAKE IT.
  • Gamut: There is a dominant vertical, horizontal and diagonal element in the composition all set within the frame of the 1.5 rectangle (no cropping because it would destroy the integrity of these relationships.)
  • Subject Lighting:  The main subjects in the foreground are properly lit.  There are not other elements that competes with them.  The other figures are essentially backlit and function more as sihloettes than round volumes.  This is another layer of successful flatness.

FRANCE. The Alpes de Haute-Provence 'department'. Town of Simiane-la-Rotonde. 1969. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Where is he breaking the rules:

  • PICTURE EDGE. The front figures are almost “sitting” on the edge of the frame.  This gives the illusion that they are spilling on to our laps.  As a beginner, the whole goal of a photograph is to enhance the illusion of depth.  Why?  Because a novice will accidentally take flat photos all the time.  The classical challenge is to create depth where there is only flatness.  If you want a scene to read as a view through a window, normally the rule is to give some space at the bottom of the frame.  But if you want them to sit on the edge of the negative, do like Cartier-Bresson above.
  • BLOWN OUT. The over exposed background defies the horizon.  The picture exists in no real space.  We have no sense of what is beyond that ledge.  We can guess that there is something in the distance, but as far as the photograph is concerned there is nothing but white space.  It is “space-less.”  This is one of the many cases where an HDR junkie would wreck a picture.  If the background is blown out, sometimes its best to let it be.  There is a time and a place for everything.
  • DEAD FLAT. Lastly the picture is flatter than flat.  The front figures are the only ones who read as volumes.  The rear figures and the dogs are outlines.  But Cartier-Bresson only needs them as supporting elements of rhythm in the piece.  He does not need them all to read as volumes.  The columns and the wall are also flatly lit and do not read as volumetric.  If we judge this image on its 3D elements, its a failure.  But when we understand that Cartier-Bresson MAKE 3D images if he wants to and is choosing to flatten this image, the picture reads differently.  Here he plays the fresco painters game, by not violating the intergity of the flat piece of paper.
  • RECESSION OF FIGURES. Our only real indication of space exists because the people in the background are smaller than the two boys in the foreground.


As we wind down the Surrealist Manifesto series, I hope you all have started to see that Cartier-Bresson is more than a hunter of the decisive moment.  His work is, in my opinion, wildly underestimated, poorly taught, and trivialized.  My goal in writing about these works is to open the artistic discussion to those who are interested.  Art, when its good, possesses a depth that baffles the novice.  The game is so deep that in one hundred lifetimes we could not repeat ourselves.  My contention is that after a few short articles, you can see what I am taking about here.  It does not require any amount of specialized intelligence.  The ideas are democratic and accessible to anyone willing to invest the time.  The equation with art is that the more you invest the more you will get out of the process.  The well of knowledge is very deep.  Don’t worry about drinking too much.  That’s impossible.

Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

SPAIN. Valencia. 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

I give all of you a tremendous amount of credit for pushing your own knowledge to new levels and expect that if you continue, the apparent limits of your lenses will evaporate.  Photography and art have molded the course of my life and they can do the same for you.  Its an open invitation to explore the ideas of design as you travel the world, exactly as Cartier-Bresson did for nearly 90 years.  Along the way you will meet some extrordinary people and search for the ways to say thank to them all.  The interaction between the world and your camera is a gift, one that is enhanced with understanding.


Best-Adam Marelli




  59 Responses to “The Surrealist Manifesto: Part VI”

  1. Another great read. Keep them coming.

  2. Thank you very much for your articles, the teach me more than any comment I get on an image.
    For a long time I have searched for information such as this.
    You are a true art teacher Adam and I appreciate you a lot.
    All of the best to you.
    Keep them coming.

    • Hey Danni,

      Glad to know you are getting something out of the articles. Like I said, We are mere custodians of this information…its our moral obligation to pass the lessons along, otherwise the tradition suffers.


  3. Thank you Adam. A very thought provoking series of articles. I look forward to going back through your archive when I can.

    If I were only to take one thing from this series (and I can assure you that I have taken much more) it would be the quote from your University teacher in Part II. “You have to get the good idea out of your mind and into the work” should be written on the walls of all artists, particularly the more pretentious “Concept” artists.

    If I need to spend more time reading your description than looking at your image before I can understand it, it just doesn’t work.

    Thanks again!

    • Hey Nathan,

      May I welcome you formally to the site, I believe this is our first introduction. Feel free to have a look around, I hope you enjoy the findings.

      And yes, Conceptual Artists, what a sham! It was a good piece of advice, happy to pass it along. The tough part is realizing when a piece just doesnt work and figuring out how to make the ideas read more clearly.

      Too many artists are interested in ambiguity, in making reference to other things, or commenting indirectly. For gods sake I say, just spit it out. In most cases, the reason it is left vague is because there is nothing to say. And why on earth would ambiguity be interesting. We are born unclear. We spend the rest of our lives searching for clarity. Even if we never find it, why would we want someone elses lack of clarity to add to ours. Hahaha, what a joke.

      Anyway, slight tangent. Enjoy the site, I look forward to hearing from you again.


  4. Hi Adam,
    A great end to a wonderful series. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and I hope it will help improve my street-photo skills.


    • Hey Mo Han,

      I know that you are hard at work on the other side of the world. Happy to provide some useful reading, I do look forward to the forthcoming pictures.

      Thank you very much for the kind words on the series. I greatly appreciate your patience as the articles trickled out. But hopefully the next time you pick up a HCB book it will read in a totally new light.


  5. Another post about Herni Cartier Bresson, and another grear read. These articles are some of the best photo articles that I read in internet. Thanks for write it.

    • Hey Machbel,

      It pleases me very much to receive compliments like this. There is a lot of information out there, most of which is not designed with photographers in mind. There are lessons embedded in those images that we can all use. Happy to share it with you all.


  6. I so very much enjoyed reading your article, now to go back to the others. Yes, an image should read like a good story or a good story should read like a good image with all the characters in place or misplaced but making and allowing us to think and discover. Thank you for your time here.


    John Amato

    • Hi John,

      Happy to know that the points in the article rang true for you. There are so many wonderful design tactics that HCB used that never appear in the catalogues or gallery explanations. Part of my initial push came from the frustration that people were really missing out. So I am happy to write them and even happier when people enjoy the articles.

      HCB left a profound body of work, one that is worthy of dedicated study.


  7. Thank you for this great piece of writing, very interesting and educational.

    • Hi James,

      Welcome to the site, glad you enjoyed the piece. And they say education is not fun?! Nonsense right? This stuff can be a blast.


  8. End up here via a Twitter post. Here I thought “here we go, another shallow two paragraph blog on how great HCB was.” Boy am I ever pleasantly surprised. Thank you so much for putting the time in and explaining it so well. This is super helpful and will help me elevate my game. I see from the comments that your other posts are just as good…can’t wait to read them.

    I know will be back to reread this to help me keep it fresh…

    Thank you again.

    • Hey Mitch,

      This could be the first time I am thankful to Twitter. Welcome to the site, feel free to have a look around and let me know if you have any questions.

      Unlocking the “whys” of photo and art will definitely enhance your game. This much I can promise.

      Look forward to hearing from you again.


  9. Thank you Adam for this wonderful thought provoking series on HCB. My own street photography has been improving slowly but surely by using the ideas you have shared. Your site is much appreciated, thanks again!

    • Hey Keith,

      Slowly, BUT surely. If you imagine that HCB probably got about 10 great shots a year, it becomes easier to swallow. This is not a speed game and the more rounds you play the better your odds are.

      Keep shooting and thank you for the compliment.


  10. I just discovered you site. I am deeply impressed by your analysis of H.C-B. It’s simple, clear and profound. I have read a lot of things about his photography but none had explained the “dead flat” so well.

    I want to thank you for that.

    • Hi Luisa,

      I always love comments like yours. Its funny how often people write about HCB, but never seem to deliver useful information for the photographer. I always used this idea as a rule of thumb. “If someone talks about a piece of art, are they giving me a description (as if I were blind) or an understanding that I can put away in my pocket and take to the next piece?

      The second one has much greater merits. Happy to know that “dead flat” has new meaning for you.


  11. Thank you for this post. It is something that I was looking for, to add into my photography.
    An eye opener for me especially how light and constrast can create depth too. :)

    Thank you :)

    • Hey Dav,

      I have taken and audited a number of Intro Photo classes over the years, and never once did I hear someone tell a photographer that since we are making 2D images from 3D scenes there are a few useful techniques to learn…

      It seems that people take for granted that a camera will reproduce a scene, but this is hardly the case. Photo copiers are interested in reproduction, we are into PROduction. Its a much different game.

      People send me images for review all the time, and usually they want to dive right into armatures and grids. But the majority of unsuccessful images struggle with lighting a subject and background elements that violate the tonal integrity of the image.

      You sound like you are starting to see how some of these ideas work. My compliments to you.


  12. Great, amazing and very educational.

    I am just confused since I could not find part 4 and 5 Unless the VI = 6 is meant to be 4 (IV)

    It would be nice to read analysis of some contemporary photographers…



    • Hey Joe,

      Glad you dug the articles.

      A mangled the numbering on them.

      Which contemporary photographers would you be interested in? I am always up for suggestions.


  13. What a wonderful post and series. Thank you for this gift.

  14. Thanks a lot!Kind people with universal ideas like yours willing to share them make this a better and more interesting world!I hope for more photographers analysis of this level!Greetings from Greece!

    • Hi Kostas,

      Very pleased that you are enjoying the articles. Personally I feel an obligation, as an artists and a photographer, to introduce the ideas of design. They were given to me by teachers and the really should be passed on, instead of hoarded in the closet.

      Every generation has to take the ideas from the past, put them into a contemporary voice, so they live on. You too are part of the process. Thank you for joining in!

      Would love to make it to Greece one day. I love watching the older Jacques Cousteau films made in the islands off Greece.


  15. Thank you so much Adam for that amazing work on HCB! I came to your site via Eric Kim’s blog and I’m so grateful for the time you’ve spent on this. It taught me many things to improve my photographic but maybe more importantly, it allowed me to appreciate these images much more intensely.

  16. Hi Adam,

    What a stupendous blog! *For the first time* I’m understanding why HCB is so great, and what goes into the making of a composition by a master. Thank you.
    One small doubt – I can’t seem to find the ‘IV’ post on the Surrealist Manifesto.
    Also, wouldn’t it be so great if you wrote a book on visual design and the psychological effects of various design elements on the viewer! I would be the first to buy it!

    Do keep posting more analyses of the works of great photographers and great masters of painting.

  17. Dear Adam,

    That last piece was right up my alley in many terms and forms, forms being a keyword for the understanding and the pursuing of improving one’s photographic journey into life and its many faces, rather than the graphic effect (which could be confused with it and not be only a small element to it as it ought to be).
    In my beginnings, fair and just intuition led me to enjoy, without formal art theory knowledge education but good inspiration found in Andre Kertesz, Brassaï and Elliot Erwitt’s respective works, taking photographs that would intuitively embody the enounced above principles of good image crafting, though my primary concern was to record something honest in a way that would allow me to satisfyingly express an urge for life, before Photography took the best of it.
    As years passed by and through different travels and stays in foreign countries ( Eastern Europe, North America, Mexico and Africa and perusals of sound photographers works for my journey, I found myself in the process of understanding forms through light and colors. Colors being the ultimate element to master and combine along with the former two to grasp all the possibilities of the medium to capture sound visual sensation and turn them into photographs depicting realms of life, but in the end allowing oneself to push the boundaries of conventional objects and subjects for photography.
    To make a long story short, I do believe that embracing forms, using geometric principles combined with a sensitive and passionate quest for light and its related revealed color harmony is the approach that we, as photographers, no matter the subject, should really work on to enjoy, sometimes with cheerful and passionate doubts, the possibilities of the medium and wide open access that photography gives us into our world. It is not so much pushing the limits of photography but it is pushing ours wide open to dive with no restraint into the world of perception, getting us closer to Nature, life and its many faces.
    I hope I was somewhat clear in expressing myself. I think I gave some clues, but if not so clear I invite you to have a glimpse of what I was talking about by giving you a link (see url) to some of my photographic journey into forms.

    In the meantime, I would peruse on the archives of your blog to read some more of your well inspired articles.


    • Hey Stephan,

      I really appreciate your thoughtful comments here. You bring up an interesting point, that after years of travel and reflection, it becomes clear that design is an undeniable part of the process. What I hope to encourage here on the site, is that many of the lessons of design can be taught. Which is why I encourage people to buy myron’s DVD’s, take a One on One or Workshop, or go study with someone.

      Its silly to reinvent the wheel in terms of design. The most useful way to put ideas into practice is to learn all of the design fundamental, so you can really get into the juicy stuff. But without some training, it take a lot of time, many plane tickets, and miles of passport stamps to reach certain conclusions.

      We speed up the things we can, and wait patiently for life experience. But in the meantime we practice relentlessly.

      Nice to know you are along for the journey.


  18. Hi Adam,

    Few words to acknowledge your responses to me writing on your pages. Thank you for taking good care of your blog and communication in sharing your views.
    And agreed Street Photography is catchy but not so telling about…


    • Hi Stephan,

      The dialogue on photography is something I believe we both really enjoy. Once the conversation gets away from techy reviews and workflow discussions, the world of image making is wide open.

      Street Photography as a title works for some applications, but it a slippery slope.


  19. Hi Adam,
    I’m revisiting the great compositions section of your website for the second time and I’m starting to ‘see’ underlying design elements in photographs, paintings and drawings. However, I still have a long way to go. No worries, it’s fun.
    At some point in the future I would like to attend one of your workshops or one-on-one sessions. For now I will stick with the basics and prime myself.

    Thanks for all your efforts and time in creating these articles. I think your site will be around a lot longer than those gear-review sites because the info is timeless (how often do you look at reviews of some ‘old’ camera models). I know for sure your site is a lot more valuable then gear-review sites.


  20. Have been reading all this manifesto, and many other post that you have written. Also i’m reading Leonardo’s “Treated about Painting”.
    I’m trying to see with more atention to all the frame and the background. Taking photos and know that all in the frame is there for a reason, saying something, it feels great. Little by little!

    Thank you Adam :)

    • Hi Javier,

      What you are uncovering is that the whole trick to photography is actually training your eyes to see better. When you do, everything looks different. Little by little you will get there.


  21. Thank you Adam for the wonderful education on both surrealism and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I am presently working my way through a review of 20th century painters and “isms” to better understand art history and I found this lecture to be extremely valuable. Your design analysis and your ability to relate traditional practices to contemporary art is also a value added feature that I have enjoyed.

    I was reading somewhere else in your blog that you consider Jackson Pollock a hack, and that is refreshing to me to find that we do not agree on at least this one opinion. I hesitate to debate this with you since it is obvious to me you are better schooled in painting than I.

    However, I wish for you to consider that while Pollock, a recognized abstract expressionist, is to my sensibilities much more than that label can afford. Because I am a cinematographer, I see implicit kinetic elements through out his work, as well as implicit performance elements, and to some degree musical form. I believe that Pollock like the early cubists and dynamists is also reaching into the temporal.

    Thank you again for an outstanding presentation.

    All the best,
    Phil Loarie

    • Hi Phil,

      Glad to hear that you are enjoying the website and finding the videos very informative.
      There are more exciting things to study in art history than I could fit into 100 lifetimes, but that wont stop me from trying!

      As for Pollack…he was the equivalent of a one hit wonder, sort of. He absolutely could not draw. Any of his early attempts at cubism, primitivism, or futurism were nothing short of disastrous. He never learned much about color either. Its why his most successful drip paintings are monochromatic (typically warm hues.)

      Personally I enjoy looking at a Pollack with a little jazz playing in the back ground, drinking a cold beer on a Fall afternoon in NYC. He has a wonderful nostalgia to him, but artistically there is not much there.

      He taught us that if you are sleeping with Peggy Guggenheim and you can get Clement Greenberg to endorse you that things can pick up.


      • Hello Adam,
        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I appreciate your detailed comments about Jackson Pollock.

        While he may not have been as gifted as others, he sure did know how to give paint an engaging kick ass trajectory. I would love to have a forensic splatter expert examine “Number 1, 1948″ and publish the analysis as Pollock mixed his paint to optimize delivery and impact. I think he could teach us a lot about preparing paint to fly, the very thought of that sounds Dalian to me.

        While recalling that Dali as a student taunted his classmates regarding a prize he would win by simply making a painting without the brush touching the canvas, I have to wonder if Dali and Pollock ever met.
        By the way Dali did win his bet, he managed a portrait by paint splatter at 1 meter.

        No doubt Peggy’s affections for Jackson are a contributing factor for his success, but I speculate sans affair that his work would have sifted to the top with de Kooning eventually, perhaps after Pollock’s premature accidental death.

        Did Life magazine’s 1949 article give Pollock too much credence? Even Life questions its promotion with “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Perhaps the real issue here is how the media responds to art and how the public interprets such media.

        Regardless, I want to thank you again for your wonderful way of breaking down surrealism and composition design per Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work to the most necessary elements.

        All the best,

        • Hey Phil,

          Its been a fun dialogue. Pollock and Dali were both characters. I heard that Dali signed 1000 sheets of blank paper in advance of his death. Good god.

          Life Magazine did to Pollock what most fame does to artists. It throws them for a serious loop be overstating their achievements. Whether it wrecked him or helped him is debatable…but it definitely challenged him in a way that caused issues. Too much drinking for that guy. Wonder if he could have emerged with anything significant after the drips. We will never know.

          But just in case the magazines don’t already realize this, the title of “greatest living ________” is ALWAYS misused. Its not something that can actually be decided in an artists lifetime. They need to sell media, so they use it. Though a wise reader would just skip the hype and comb through the work themselves.

          And glad to hear that you enjoy the other pieces on HCB too. I am trying to get some video up on the site, because my personal strength is not writing. It comes across much clearer in audio. We will see how this goes. Right now though I am getting ready for Japan.


  22. p.s. I messed up my email address so I am sending an update, my apologies for this distraction.

  23. Hi Adam,

    Can you please re-upload Part III? Thanks.

  24. Hi, I am a land/seascaper brand new to SP. I fought it for a long time due mainly to privacy issues; now, due to my health and being unable to chase – joking – boring straight sunrises and sets – and unable to carry my Canon bricks, I have moved to Oly MFT and slowly started to shoot SP.

    I was directed to Manifesto #4 by an Administrator of ‎Street View Photography’s Feedback Group, Sam Ferris.

    I admit; I am obsessed with straight line; level images. I have a hard time with images like the last one – SPAIN. Valencia. 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS – understanding why it was left titlted. At that camera angle, if the camera were square it appears to me that it would be straight.

    Additionally, I made a jpg and straightened it for comparison. I do not see any depth changing and my anal eye prefers the straightened image.

    Thanks for having written the Manifesto; I will download and read the other portions. I also signed up to receive you blog posts.


    Jay aka “Confused”

  25. Adam, I have enjoyed your site for a while but this is the first time I have stopped to post a comment. It’s refreshing to read such thoughtful and knowledgeable material presented so accessibly and with such modesty. I think you’re absolutely right that HCB has been trivialized and think he’s often unfairly reduced to a parodic reading of the “decisive moment” than undoes the complexity and genius of his work. I have gained a great deal from reading your site, not least because you focus so much on artistic journeys and learning rather than fetishising equipment. Cheers for a great read and all the best to you. david.

    • Hi David,
      Im happy to hear that the site is break from the regular camera chatter that usually occupies the internet.

      Hopefully we can work out a way to open up the understanding of HCB…its still in its early phases. I need to go to the foundation in Paris and have a little chat with them.


  26. Hi Adam,
    I just finished reading the Surrealist Manifesto for the second time. It’s one of the best texts I’ve ever read about photography. Thank you.
    I’ve always admired HCB and always thought there was much more to his photographs than what is perceived at first and you showed me a glimpse of that.
    I would love to attend one of your workshops but unfortunately it’s not possible for me at the moment. Perhaps we can arrange to have you in Mexico?



    • Hi Mario,

      Thank you for the kind words, Im delighted you enjoyed the article. There is definitely more below the surface than most writers give him credit for.

      Mexico…hmmm…what locations?


  27. Hi Adam,

    Just sent you a mail.


  28. Wonderful articles on Henri Cartier-Bresson. I’ve read and re-read all of them. Your insights are deep and I learned a lot! You should make a book on these…

    Atom Magadia

    • Hi Atom,
      Thanks for reading the articles so closely. Its always nice to know they are well received.
      I will have to have a chat with the HCB Foundation about it…Id love to do it as a TV show or video series.

  29. Thank you very much Adam for sharing this. This article has been a great reading and is a wonderful invitation to go back to basics and (try to) create.


  30. Hi Adam,

    I would like to say thank you very much. An eye opener. Just ordered “The Decisice Moment” from HCB and some other great stuff.

    Photographers need to teach their eyes and practice practice and practice again.. I understand this now.
    thanks for the series.

    I also checkout your 2 seminars on youtube, it was a pleasure.

    Best from Germany–

    • Dear Oezer,

      Glad to hear these articles have kicked things off in the right direction for you. And the BH videos should make more sense after reading these pieces and some of the other ones on the site.

      It sounds like you are getting the hang of it all!

      We will be in Berlin in June if you are around to join us.


  31. First of all let me tell you I am an amateur photographer and I have no prior knowledge about the art. What I have noticed is the following: If a picture is mentioned to be from a great photographer like Henri cartier Bresson or martin Parr, all of the world’s energy goes in interpreting the picture or finding the art from it. Sometimes I really feel people are trying hard to find the meaning of the photographs from the great photographers. I am really curious will it be be the same if a picture is exhibited without the artist’s name?

    • Dear Chandan,

      That is a great questions…my guess is most of the time the “fame” of the picture over shadows the actual picture.

      Some of the most famous pictures are so terribly misunderstood, while some masterpieces hardly go unnoticed.

      The idea that someone can pick out good work, regardless of the name is the delicate land of connoisseurship. It is challenging for even the best historians and curators in the business. It is why forgeries are so prominent.

      That being said, it is always helpful if someone can explain what a picture is “doing” rather than what it looks like. If it is “doing” something incredible, then it very well might be an amazing picture too.


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