Henri Cartier-Bresson: perfect geometry, the ‘Decisive Moment’ and the compassionate eye

Updated 11th Dec 2008

This short article is both a celebratory appreciation and a lesson for use in schools or colleges.

Is this an early perfect Cartier-Bresson photograph?

A) Is this an early perfect Cartier-Bresson photograph - according to the three elements in my aesthetic model for appreciating HCB?

1) Photography that is art is (potentially) a bridge to reality, a bridge to a more sensitive reading of the world and a bridge to understanding the true self.  Q. Is photography that isn’t art a bridge to reality etc.?

2) What is art?  My working definition is;

Art is culturally, and personally, significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium. 
(RP’s working definition  – after a definition by Richard Anderson quoted in Freeland (2001 p. 77))

Decide how satisfactory this definition is for you.  Find others – compare them.  Decide on your own definition until you feel compelled to modify your definition.

3) What about the art of this great photographer, HCB, whose work spanned the extraordinary changes of most of the 20thC?  What are the elements of that greatness?

4) Upon reflection I think that the perfect Cartier-Bresson photograph is one in which there is a near perfect balance between three interrelating elements; the decisive moment, geometry and compassion (compassion as the key quality in the eye of of the humanistic eye).  See A above.

“The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

In most of his photographs one of these three elements dominates.  One question for debate is this; “Is he at his greatest when all three, more or less, in balance with each other?”

5) In this ‘triangulation’ of compassion, geometry and the decisive moment we have a Cartier-Bresson-ian aesthetic with which to view Cartier-Bresson’s photographs.

Draw a triangle with each of my three elements at the three corners.  Look closely at a series of HCB photographs and put a dot on your triangle to suggest where you think each photograph is placed.

6) We also have an aesthetic with which to appreciate many other photographs and photographers.  

7) This image (B below), 


one of the most famous of his photographs, is primarily about the decisive moment- to an astonishing extent.  Just look at the distance between the man’s heel and the surface of the water – it was a split second of intuitive timing.  It just would’t have been so perfect if the heel had penetrated the water.  

Those I like best are those that are exemplary of all three principles –  ‘the Decisive Moment’, the humanity and the form as perfect geometry – but some just throb with one or two elements.  Here for example  compassion;


Here (C below) for example a snatched moment that resonates with meanings about time, past & presents, generation linkages etc – but its not strong on geometry;


Q Did HCB take ‘the Decisive Moment’ too far?

Q HCB also refused to crop any photograpy – he always had the negative printed full frame.  His financial independence meant he could travel the world and take thousands of photographs, accepting that only one or two per year would satisfy him.  Was the imposition of the ‘no-cropping full-frame self-imposed’ rule counter-productive, a discipline too far?

With a bit of adaptation by the teacher using a range of tecahing methods especially PFC (Philosophy for Children) this lesson would work at any level from primary to university.




True achievement, success and happiness lie in being fully and positively human –

through our caring our creativity and our criticality –

developed via service to the communities to which we belong.

All postings to this site relate to the central model in the

PhD. Summaries are HERE



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