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 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)

Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson – Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)

HCB: To me, photography is a simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of a significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of form which gives that event its proper expression. I believe that, for reactive living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds: the one inside us, and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

But this takes care only of a content of a picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a rigorous geometrical organization of interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organization alone, that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.

First I would like to say that it is only a rule I established in myself, a certain discipline, but it is not a school, it’s not a.. it’s very personal. And I think that we cannot separate what we have to say from the way we have to say it, how to speak.

Photography is in a way a mental process. We have to know what to, be clear, on what we want to say. Our conceptions, our, what we think of a certain situation, a certain problem. Photography is a way of writing it, of drawing, making sketches of it. And in the form, things are offered to us in daily life. We have to be alert and know when to pick the moment which is significant. Then, it’s just intuition. It’s instinct. We don’t know why, we press at a certain moment. It comes, it is there, it’s given. Take it. Everything is there, it is a question of chance, but you have to pick and force chance to come to you. There’s a certain will.


 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Madrid, 1933
 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Volcano of Popocatepetl, Mexico, 1964

The creative part of photography is very short. A painter can elaborate, a writer can, but as it’s given, we have to pick that moment, the decisive moment, it is there. Ah! I’ve seen this, I’ve been there. I’ve seen that.

When I started photography in 1930 there were hardly any picture magazines, there was no market. And I was taking pictures (..) things that struck me, interested me. I was keeping a kind of diary. And I still do keep a photography diary. And later, there were magazines, and working for magazines, you have to work for yourself, always for yourself, you express yourself. With magazines, they put you into contact with events important in the world, and you have a possibility of speaking to a very large audience.

Interviewer: Does that in any way affect your attitude toward a story when you’re working for a large audience? Or do you still follow your own precepts, it’s still the same intuition in a way?

HCB: It is the same intuition. You have to know in which framework you have to tell your story for the magazine, but you must not work for the work for yourself, and the story. Communication has to be very (? diarational ? )..

Interviewer: Of course you are communicating. For example, you’ve made various photographic essays on different countries. When you come into a country do you live there for some time? Do you try to feel the…

HCB: You can’t rush in and out. It takes time to understand, to have a feeling of a place. You have a general idea of a country, but when you get there, you realize that your preconceived idea was right or wrong, but you mustn’t push the preconceived idea you had. No, reality speaks, and your impressions. And it’s very important, the first impression has to be very fresh – just like when you see the face of somebody for the first time, you have a feeling. Maybe after, you say, oh, I was wrong. Because I didn’t take notice of certain things, a certain smile, something, and a country is the same thing.

Interviewer: I wonder if you could possibly give an example. For example, your work on India. Which we in the West have some sort of exotic preconceptions about. Was that changed quite a bit when you first got there, and did that affect your work and your approach to the people?


 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Berlin, 1931
 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Arsila, Spanish Morocco, 1933

HCB: It’s a thing that comes through your system little by little, it’s not sudden. It can be have to live there, you have to know people, you have to establish relations, you have to be on the same level with people. You can’t come as a judge and uh, you have to get close to people, you have to be warm. You have to like people. You mustn’t be cruel, you mustn’t be hard, you mustn’t be tough, because it bounces back on yourself. You can express all that you feel, you can be shocked, you can be humorous, you can be less tender, all the sentiments you can express.

Interviewer: And that’s all there in your attitude, it shows up in what you pick, I suppose. Well, in your approach, do you take many pictures, for example, of one incident or subject, or do you wait perhaps for that..

HCB: It depends, there’s no rule, there’s depends, it depends. You have to be subtle and supple at the same time. Fit, exactly.

Interviewer: You’ve been known for never cropping your photos. Do you want to say anything about that?

HCB: About cropping? Uh, I said in that forward, we have to have a feeling for the geometry of the relation of shapes, like in any plastic medium. And I think that you place yourself in time, we’re dealing with time, and with space. Just like you pick a right moment in an expression, you pick your right spot, also. I will get closer, or further, there’s an emphasis on the subject, and if the relations, the interplay of lines is correct, well, it is there. If it’s not correct it’s not by cropping in the darkroom and making all sorts of tricks that you improve it. If a picture is mediocre, well it remains mediocre. The thing is done, once for all.

Interviewer: Well I guess that goes back to your intuition. It has to be there, completely..

HCB: Yes. And for technique, technique is not a thing in the abstract. You can’t evade it. The technique has to be something to express what you want to say. You have to master your own technique, to know your tools to say what you have to say. Technique doesn’t exist in the (abstract) have to know your lenses, but it’s not that difficult. You learn it very quickly. It’s like a typist mustn’t look at his keyboard, and then he types. But then, when he knows how to type he’s concerned only with what he has to say, it’s the same thing. You mustn’t use a light meter, you have to know exactly what, to weigh the light. A cook doesn’t take a scale to know how much salt you should put in a cake. The salt you put to give, to enhance the sugar. It’s intuition, it’s instinctive, and it’s the same thing.

Interviewer: I think that applies to all forms of expression, the technique has to be completely assimilated.


 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City, 1934
 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Hyères, France, 1932

HCB: I think so. Yes.

Interviewer: Now, for example as a photographer, you yourself, the basic thing you want to do is communicate, I suppose like any artist in any field.

HCB: Yes, communication has been an important thing. You want to give something, and to know that it is accepted. It’s not recognition. a way, success is dangerous. Success can affect us.

Interviewer: In what way, you mean..

HCB: Success is in a way as unjust as lack of success. What is important (becomes the recognition.) You want to give something to know that somebody will accept it. In fact, when you love somebody, somebody will not turn you down, your love is accepted. And this is communication to me. To give something which is..

Interviewer: To give and then be requited.

HCB: Yes. And not recognition.

Interviewer: I wonder if you can talk about some technical aspects of photography.

HCB: We don’t need very big equipment. Practically I work all the time with a 50 mm, a very wide open lens, because I never know if I’m going to be in a dark room taking a picture in this moment and outside in full bright sun the next moment. So…

Interviewer: The compactness has become very important..small cameras..

HCB: It is very important. And people don’t notice you so much.

Interviewer: In the old days when they had colloidal plates and whatnot..

HCB: I think with the 50 mm you can cover a large number of things. Sometimes, especially for landscape, you need a 90 mm because it cuts all the foreground which is not that interesting. But this you don’t decide beforehand…I’m going to work with such a It depends on the subject. The subject guides you, it’s there. Your frame, you see it, it’s a recognition of a certain geometrical order, as well as of the subject.

It’s a question sometimes people put. “Which is your favorite picture?” And I must say the important picture is the next one you’re going to take. We’re not curators of our work. The important is to think about the next subject. Photography is a way of living. To me, my camera is an extension of my eye. I keep it all the time with me. But, everything depends on the way we live, what we like and our attitude toward life. What we are, in fact.

(Photographer Erica McDonald transcribed this interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson from the Candid Recordings audio of Famous Photographers Tell How, 1958)

You can hear the audio recording at:


All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher


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In our latest photo essay made in collaboration with Magnum Photos, we follow Bruce Gilden to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Bruce Gilden first traveled to Haiti in 1984 and made 19 trips over the course of 10 years, culminating in his book titled, quite simply, “Haiti”. In February and March 2010, he went back to Port-au-Prince to witness firsthand what had happened in the wake of the earthquake. What he found was a city destroyed and people who are poor of everything but grace, pride and a distinctive soul. During his most recent trip this past September, he went back to document a refugee camp that has sprung up across the street from the half-destroyed presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince. In this video, Gilden shares his audio, video and photo captures of this neighborhood of decorated huts built out of scavenged corrugated tin and cardboard, recreated with all the elements of Haitian life as if the people knew right away that this temporary settlement would be their long term home.

You can also read our interview with Bruce Gilden on the Leica blog:




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Seine überlebensgroßen Porträtfotos machten Thomas Ruff weltberühmt. Jetzt zeigt eine Ausstellung in Münster seine Leidenschaft für das Weltall. Unter dem Titel “Stellar Landscapes” sind Aufnahmen zu sehen, die uns neue Welten eröffnen.Zum Beispiel, wenn der Künstler Fotos der NASA bearbeitet. Der Zuschauer meint, selbst durchs All zu reisen. KULTUR.21 trifft Thomas Ruff.


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Joe Rodriguez started his extensive career as a documentary photographer making photos of gangs in East Los Angeles, and he has returned to document the effects of long-term incarceration on families there.


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 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)
Untitled (Empleado de Telefonos de Mexico electrocutado en el km. 13 de la carretera Mexico-Toluca), 1971

Interview with Enrique Metinides, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest

By Daniel Hernandez

I stood on the sidewalk on thunderous Avenida Revolución in the Escandon district of Mexico City at 1 p.m. on a weekday in October 2006. It was a nondescript apartment building with a large metal gate, through which I could see a long concrete courtyard with a few levels of apartments rising on either side. There was no sign of a doorbell or ringer. I stood there and waited. After a few minutes, a short balding man in plain slacks and a collared sweater approached me from down the sidewalk. He held a few open envelopes of business mail and made no effort to hide the suspicion written all over his face. In this dog-eat-dog city, there is no other way to meet a stranger. “Señor Metinides?” I asked. He said that’s who he was, and I introduced myself as the writer from Los Angeles here to interview him. Enrique Metinides, the great Mexican photojournalist, opened the gate to his building and led me in silence to the rear of the courtyard, up the stairs and to his second-level apartment. It was a clean, bright space with tile floors and cream-colored walls. Framed photographs of family and children and knickknacks were displayed all over the furniture. Colorful couches faced a wide-screen television and several shelves of DVDs. We sat down on his couch and his look of suspicion did not waver. As I figure out what to ask him first, his eyes remained fixed on me, cool and aloof.

 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)A High Voltage Cable Snaps Loose and Hits a Man Walking Along Tacaba Street. Despite Being Badly Electrocuted, He Survived, 1958

“They’ve just given me an interview from L.A.,” Metinides huffed, “See, here, in this magazine of … fashion? Of whores…”

We laugh together at this outburst and this surprises us both. Metinides, I immediately realize, is a classic old-school journalist: hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, and blessed with a cynical and fatalistic wit. Which also happens to be one of the defining characteristics of cosmopolitan Mexicans.

Although he hasn’t published a photograph in almost fifteen years, Metinides can safely be called the most prolific news photographer of his generation. Between 1946, when he was barely twelve years old, and 1993, when he was muscled out of his “nota roja” newspaper job, Metinides was a tenacious documenter of death and brutality in the chambers of Mexico City’s hospitals, police stations, and morgues. He shot murders, suicides, auto and aviation accidents, fires, drowning, and crime scenes—sometimes in action. He breathed his work, sleeping at night with a police scanner always near his ear. He rode along to the scene of an accident or homicide on ambulances and fire trucks.

Metinides possessed throughout his career a reporter’s instinctual hunger for gore, taste for the absurd, and a classically Mexican affection for death. As often as he could, he framed shots at news scenes as wide as possible in order to capture the throngs of captivated but emotionally disinterested onlookers. He would find crime victims eager to pose seductively for his camera, even as their wounds were still fresh. When a woman shot herself at her wedding day altar after being stood up, Metinides photographed a close-up of her blood-splattered love letters. He owns a large collection of images of young children with their arms stuck in pipes and sinks, their faces grimacing in shock and horror, with gloomy adults lingering all around them.

The cinematic beauty of gangster flicks influenced him as a child. When his father gave him his first camera, Metinides approached even his earliest photographs—of arrested criminals at police stations, of car accidents outside his front door—stills from films that existed only in his head.

 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)

Hernandez: I read that you were given your first camera at age twelve. Is that true?

Metinides: Yes. What happened was my father sold cameras.

H: Where?

M: On Avenida Juárez, here in Mexico, in the Distrito Federal. A few steps away from the Alameda Central, there used to be a hotel that was called Hotel Regis, which was the most famous hotel of that era. My father sold cameras, film, and developed pictures. And he had a New York-style shoe shine place with twelve shoe-shiners, for tourists mostly.

On top of that he sold postcards from all over the republic, with pictures of monuments, the avenidas, all of Mexico. And when they remodeled that corner, they had to move five businesses, one of which was my father’s. That’s when he gave me a camera and a bag full of film. And he showed me how to put in the film. I was ten years old, if that. And my passion for photography grew because I used to go by myself to the cinemas, and there were many in the city.

H: Cinemas.

M: And I would go more than anything to the action films. I would see all those movies in the cinemas. Especially James Garney, Al Capone, “Masacre de San Valentín,” all those films I would see. I would love to watch the chases, the shoot-outs—all the gangster movies. I would also see all the “Superman” reels. These movies lasted maybe fifteen minutes each episode. They would always end in the moment that someone was about to die, so that you would have to return the next week to see what happened. And so I would take my camera and photograph the screen. And then I started taking pictures of the city, the centro, monuments, avenidas, streets, cars—the people. That’s how I started my collection of pictures.

H: Where did you live then?

M: We lived on Avenida Hidalgo. And then we moved to Plaza de Vizcaínas—all of centro. On Avenida San Juan de Letrán, which is now called Lázaro Cárdenas, there was a cinema on every block. And in most of the cinemas they played action films. These movies. [He points to his extended collection of old gangster flick DVDs.] Then it occurred to me to take pictures of car accidents. Because back then when there was an accident cars would be left just as they were for up to a week. It wasn’t like today, where a car crashes and right away, it’s gone. They’d leave them. So everyday I would look at the newspapers and look for an accident that had happened. And I would go to the scene of the accident and take pictures and the cars would still be there. And even though I wasn’t even eleven years old, the police wouldn’t say anything to me. There would always be police guarding the cars. That’s when my father opened a restaurant. And so I would have all my little photos at the restaurant, and I would take them to school to show them to the teachers.

 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)

H: Yes.

M: On one occasion at the restaurant some officers came to eat from the Seventh Delegation, a police delegation. It was half a block from the restaurant. And when I showed them my photographs to the officers, they invited me to come to the delegation to take pictures. So I would show up at the delegation to photograph the dead, the detained, the totaled cars out front. My collection grew.

H: They invited you themselves?

M: They invited me to the delegation. And so, the first picture I took was this one. [He shows me a picture of a police officer holding up a severed head.] He was murdered. They placed his neck on the train tracks and it cut off his head.


M: And this picture, when I took it, I was about to turn twelve.

H: And you weren’t scared? It didn’t give you nausea?

M: Well of course I was scared! Yes, I was scared. But I was cured.

H: Why were you attracted to taking pictures of dead people?

M: Because of the movies! [I laugh.] Seriously!

H: And what did your father say, your mother?

M: No, well, I hid a lot. “Chamacho!” they would tell me, mostly. But here comes the second part. Lots of cars passed through San Cosme. So I would always have the camera at the restaurant. The funny thing was one day a car crashed right in San Cosme, a couple blocks from the restaurant. So there I go, to take pictures. And a taxi arrives with a photographer from La Prensa. He saw me taking pictures and he asked me if I liked to take pictures. I tell him, “Yes.” He says, “Come see me at La Prensa. I am a photographer from there. I am Antonio Velasquez.” So I go, I talk to him, I show him my pictures, and he asks me to come work there.

 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)

I showed up every morning at ten with my camera, which was a camera de cajon that took black-and-white pictures, and I would tag along with him when he worked, going as a photographer from La Prensa to the police incidents of the city. The route we took every day was the jail and Hospital Juarez, where they kept the cadavers and the injured. And then the Red Cross. I would not only see dead people, but thirty or forty dead people in a single day. So I got used to seeing dead people—and more dead people—and I took their pictures. And we would go to where the dead person was, and since the authorities then the reporter do his work, we would go right inside the houses where the crime had occurred, on the street, in the factory, in a ditch, or wherever, and I would take pictures of all those dead people. And the funny thing is we would develop the rolls together, mine and his—and I had better pictures than he did! Because I would get in where he wouldn’t go. So I have pictures on the front page of La Prensa at twelve years old, with my name on the front page, which is a completely unique case.

H: But you would go where the crimes had happened?

M: Ah, no, [yes], I got to go to the scenes of the strong shoot-outs, the crimes, the action. But I had so much luck that in the moment that I arrived, the best stuff happened. Because I believe there is no good photographer without good luck. Why? Because I would get to a fire and the best picture happened when I got there. It would collapse, someone would jump–it was really something–really, it was very extraordinary what would happen to me, very rare.

H: And you wouldn’t have nightmares?

M: Oh, yes, I would cry at night. I would dream it. I was in this day and night. I would dream of something happening and it would happen.

H: You’re kidding.

M: On top of that, the other photographers were so jealous of me. Because the other photographers were already older, and I was just a kid. They were jealous, and know what they did? One day the put water in my developer. My roll was ruined. The editor got so mad, he fired me.

H: Better for you.

M: Of course. I worked, as a freelancer, for the magazine Alarma. And the entire magazine was filled with my police photographs. And I kept freelancing for La Prensa. Until 1960, when one of the police reporters managed to become editor. If you want to look him up, Manuel Buendia, who was killed on Insurgentes. In fact, I happened to take his picture when he died, at the scene of the incident.

H: And the public knew who you were? The readers?

M: Yes, no, well, the newspaper was well known, in journalism circles. All the newspapers knew me since I was a child. Me, as a child, at twelve years old, I rode in the firetrucks all over the city.

 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)

H: They let you?

M: The firefighters carried me on their shoulders! And I’d take these fotazos that no one else would get because I would go right into the biggest flames. That went on for many years. I had many firefighter friends. […] You know what was my password with them?

H: What?

M: I’d give them pictures of the fires they worked.

H: To them?

M: In the Red Cross, I’d give them pictures of them picking up the injured. So we became friends, and they’d help me. The medics even let me take pictures inside the operating rooms, in the emergency rooms. And then I would give them their pictures and they keep them, as keepsakes. And so, they even started looking for me. They would look for me because I took pictures of them when they operated.

H: Very sharp of you.

M: I never sold them pictures, eh? I always gave them their pictures as gifts. So they would look for me. ‘Come because we have a person who’s been shot, a knife nailed in a heart…’ [He shows me photographs in the book "El Teatro de los Hechos," published by the Mexico City municipal government and now out of print.] This is a young woman whose boyfriend wanted to kill her. And look at the report I did on her at the police station. [I laugh as he shows me a series of photographs of a beautiful young lady with long hair, dark eye makeup, and a go-go miniskirt and tall boots, first giving testimony to an investigator and then posing for Metinides' camera on top of a desk.]

 Interview with Enrique Metinides (2006)

H: She got into a pose.

M: Yes! [We laugh.] Isn’t it terrific?

H: Yes, no. She liked the camera.

M: Yes. It’s not like today, the photographer goes, takes two pictures, and leaves. I liked doing a whole report. And another thing that I grew accustomed to doing was taking pictures of the people who were looking at the accident. Because in these movies [He points to his collection of DVDs of old gangster flicks] what really drew my attention was the people looking, looking at a burning building, and how you could see the flames off their faces, but in black-and-white. And so it got in my head that the miron, the crowd that comes near, is important as well.

H: Why?

M: Why? Because they life to the pictures.

H: Yes.

M: So I would photograph the miron. All the photographers that arrive at accidents push the people aside when they are in the way. I did the reverse. Look. [He shows me another photograph, a classic Metinides image of an auto accident with a large crowd of onlookers.] Tell me if the mirones are not important. Doesn’t it give the photo more to look at?

H: Yes. Well, its full of people. Yes.

M: My photos became famous because of this, because the people gave life to the photos. The photographer today arrives and photographs just the bus.

H: And because Mexican people love to go look …

M: Ah, no! They’re practically walking on the injured, on the cadavers, and on top of that the police never says anything. [We laugh.] They’re all top of each other. Look. [Another picture of a bus accident.] Now don’t the picture give it more to look at? But the photographer today just photographs the bus. And I’d always look for a high spot, a building or something, or even posts, or on top of a bus, to photograph the people.

ASX CHANNEL: Enrique Metinides


(© Daniel Hernandez, 2006. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)


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