The Velvet Hand and the Hawk’s Eye

The Decisive Moment is Back
Part 1


Most probably you have never seen it as it is quite rare but if you have ever sought for inspiration in photography then surely you know about it: The Decisive Moment, the book in which Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photo reportage, exposes a philosophy and method of documentary photography that influenced figures such as Steve McCurry and Sebastiao Salgado.

Despite being praised by Jean Cocteau, Alexey Brodovitch and Joan Miro the book didn’t sell too well and thus it was only printed once in a short run in 1952. Nevertheless the book contained such clarity of vision as to remain the most influential book on photography to date. 

Well, after 62 years the book is back in print in a fairly good new facsimile edition (no need to pay 1000 dollars for a rare copy any more).

The book cover was painted by Matisse, a great paradox: a painting illustrating a photography book.

I have never seen the book either but, as most photo enthusiasts, I have seen plenty of the images scattered here and there ( you can even see them all collected at Magnum's website). Lucky me, I have a transcript of the opening essay.

The essay defines Henri’s philosophy and method of documentary photography which I would like to outline in this and the two following posts by quoting and commenting it:


The Picture Story

The elements which, together, can strike sparks out of a subject, are often scattered —either in terms of space or time— and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, cheating. But if it is possible to make pictures of the “core” as well as the struck-off sparks of the subject, this is a picture-story…

…The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions….

…We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again…

…Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera. We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor must we manipulate the results in a darkroom…

Selected images from Henri's Soviet Union essay. He wast the first western photographer allowed into the USSR.

The world: it’s an amazing place, packed with fantastic miracles most of them out of the reach of our eyes… but fear not because the photographer is out there to bring these wonders within the literal reach of your hands. And such is the mission of the picture story: “striking sparks out of a subject” which is out of the reach for most of us even if it stands in plain sight.

Yet for Henri the importance of presenting reality in photography is not only for amazement and goes beyond it’s journalistic ethical implications; reality is a gateway to Nirvana.

Henri, as a surrealist thinker, considered the subconscious the ultimate way of understanding and experiencing the world and thus reality became the supreme photographic value for Henri as only an unaltered representation of reality is capable of creating a true and integrated subconscious experience.

The contemplation of things as they are without substitution or imposture without error or confusion is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention. “
Francis Bacon

A quote selected by Henri in Pen, Brush and Camera. A film by Patricia Whatley.

Children in Seville

Henri’s photography was the raw material for the subconscious experience of his audience, this is why many of his pictures contain seemingly odd elements which were intended to stimulate the subconscious mind.

The hard task of presenting a vibrant, coherent and unaltered account of a subject’s reality is achieved by intentionally capturing serendipity, the “objective chance” before it vanishes: it’s the unexpected confluence of what the individual wants and what the world offers to him.


A Velvet Hand, a Hawk's Eye


"El maestro" in action.

In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe—even if the subject is still-life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye —these we should all have…

...It’s no good jostling or elbowing. And no photographs taken with the aid of flash light either, if only out of respect for the actual light —even when there isn’t any of it…

…When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it…

It has happened to all of us: by the moment your camera’s viewfinder has reached your eye the subject is already wearing a stiff grin-mask to shield from your intrusion and what’s to be done then? Fixing a portrait, as Henri made clear already, is a deviation from reality and even a charismatic photographer who is able to pull the personality of the subject from it’s photographic hideout will be “managing the stage”.

Henri Cartier-Bresson sipping coffee

Here Henri was caught off guard although he was not very fond of being photographed, what's wrong with him?

The original title of the book, Images à la sauvette, means images made on a hurried sly and clearly describes Henri’s ideal method of work as he spent some years in Africa where he survived as a hunter, selling game to villagers, and thus developed a strong stalking talent.

This ability to “steal” images without disturbing the subject is deemed by Henri as a requisite to the documentary work if one is bound to represent a pure contemplation of reality and so a proper camera was needed for the task. 

Henri's first Leica

Henri’s first camera as a child was a Kodak Brownie, later he owned a box camera and then started experimenting with a miniature camera when he visited Africa in 1931. He finally settled for a Leica with a collapsible 50mm lens when he was back in Marseille in 1933.

Henri painted all of the chrome parts of his camera black and often carried it under a handkerchief for increased furtiveness. He rarely switched his 50mm lens, that would only distract him from the actions around him and flag him as a photographer.


“Photography is very much to me a physical pleasure, like hunting, except we don't kill… The pleasure is here and now, to be alive and to be present. Feel the pulse of everything”
Henri in Pen, Brush and Camera. A film by Patricia Whatley.


“Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn't go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick.
Henri in Pen, Brush and Camera. A film by Patricia Whatley.


All uncredited quotes belong to The Decisive Moment. 

Next post:  Subject and Composition