My Dinner with Henri

Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot, simplify. The question is, do we always cut out what we should? While we’re working, we must be conscious of what we’re doing. Sometimes we have the feeling that we’ve taken a great photo, and yet we continue to unfold. We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Since my last post, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my friends Sabrina Henry, Stuart and JoeEllen  Sipahigil, Sue and Pat Ables and Marco Ryan.  We all decided to meet in Chicago to see the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

(as an aside, before I was on Twitter I thought it was the stupidest thing ever.  Now I realize it’s a great community of people, including those above, most of whom I’d have never met without it)

It has taken me awhile to ponder the exhibit and reflect on the meaning of it to me.  Honestly, it was that overwhelming.  Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order:

  • I was amazed to find out how much Bresson traveled in his life.  The exhibit featured a world map showing all of his travels.  I had always pictured him based in Paris, but he traveled for years on end.  Years in China, extensively in Japan, Indonesia, America, the Middle East, Russia, photographing Gandhi in India and more.  He wasn’t a “lofty artist thinking big artistic thoughts in Paris”.  He was out there busting his ass as a photojournalist.  Since he numbered each roll sequentially in his life, he ended up taking more than half a million frames.  Takeaway:  The only way to get better is to shoot constantly – to walk the walk.
  • Bresson was able to capture the very essence of whatever he shot.  When you think of a large bank for example, the images in your head are the ones that he captured in his Bankers Trust series.  When you think of Coco Chanel, the image that pops in your head is what he captured, etc.  As my friend Ray Ketcham says, he didn’t take photos of something, he took them about something, and that’s what made it art.  Takeaway:  Slow down and find the essence in my subject.  Then figure out the light, angle, setting and all the other variables that will accentuate that before taking the shot.
  • After the early 30’s, he didn’t print hardly any of his own photos.  He’d send in his film to whatever magazine or newspaper he was shooting for and they’d take it from there.  From a photojournalistic perspective, that makes perfect sense.  I know some National Geographic photographers and they do the same thing – they just send hard drives of RAW images to the magazine and they take it from there.  He’d insist that the publications not crop his images or edit his captions (which was a losing battle.  He finally gave up on this insistence and said that his work ended after he pressed the shutter).  Takeaway for me:  I’m not sure.  I’m still pondering this one as I work primarily in the fine art world and enjoy printing my images.  I think if I could find a printer that I could establish a relationship with and that I’d trust, I’d have no problem letting them do it.
  • He didn’t get hung up on equipment.  He traveled primarily with two Leica’s and 3 lenses (35, 50 and 135mm).  Takeaway:  Talk about a light kit!  He stripped his gear down to its essence too.
  • Having coined the term “The decisive moment”, he absolutely mastered it.  It’s astonishing to realize that he’d usually only take 4 or 5 frames of a particular subject, and then move on to a different person or aspect. Takeaway:  This goes to that “essence” thing too.  And practice.

Overall, the exhibit has left a major impression on me.  It brought me to tears while I was there, it was so impactful.  The biggest thing I learned that I need to continue to work on, is that ability to capture the essence of my subject.  As my buddy Sam Abell says, he wants his photos to be of reality but to transcend it.

That is a lifelong goal.





  1. Hi Mark
    Wish I could see this exhibition in Chicago. But thanks to you, I’m reminded of what a inspiration Henri Cartier-Bresson has been to me. Good to see he has had the same effect on you and your friends.

  2. SOme great insights and a great post that demonstrates you captured the essence of the exhibition!

    Great to share this time with you and to observe Chicago a little through your eyes

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