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L’amour de court, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Watch the Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) documentary ‘L’amour de court’ (‘Just plain love’, 2001) available in five parts on YouTube. Write a personal response to the film.

L’amour de court (‘Just Plain Love’) is about Bresson’s love of the moment, love of life, love of photographing. It is about his spiritualism; Bresson comments how the Far East left its mark on him, particularly Buddhism, which he describes as a ‘spiritual science’. Many of his ideas are aligned with Buddhist thinking, though it is not clear if the knowledge of Buddhism or his own thinking came first, and perhaps that is not important. (See post Tao of Photography for more on Eastern spiritualism and photography).

Bresson states ‘what is important is to look ….. to seek meaning’ and provides comment on the popular view that he was ‘lucky’ by explaining ‘it’s always luck. It’s luck that matters. You have to be receptive that’s all,’ going on to say ‘if you want it, you get nothing.’ You make your own luck by be in the right state of mind and focusing on the moment rather than a desired destination by wanting it’. Referring to the Far East, he later comments on his enjoyment of being in a country and observing it, ‘[he] didn’t care about the result [his prints] … more about the adventure … taking the shot.’ Again, a focus on the journey, the moment, not the destination.

He explains what is important to him when capturing a photograph; it is geometry, the golden section, which he captures intuitively, and how form is more important to him than light. The golden section is based on the ratio between the numbers before and after the decimal place in Phi (1.618…..), so the smaller part is approximately 1/3 (derived from 6/16) of the whole. Something that can be derived intuitively.

Arbaïzar P & Clair J explain that Bresson travelled extensively as a photojournalist and it is from this work that his art photography is taken. Therefore, I was interested to hear Bresson’s reflections on travelling:

The truth of travelling is not about discovering the new, but about that which will pass and that which will last so that one can gain a deeper insight than by merely flicking through art books.

He talks about death (Gandhi) and the passing of youth (young Greek boy doing hand-stand in road). So the capture of a significant passing moment is part of the meaning he looks for when photographing.

Once Bresson had retired from travelling, and before he swapped drawing for photography, he took portraits. What he says about these, also reflects his philosophy on being in the moment. He describes a portrait as ‘an enquiry, but also and embracing of the person’; by enquiry he means a question or representation of who the person really is. The photograph of Giacometti walking in the rain is described by the narrator as ‘the movement of a man in relation to his inner-self. His absolute being.’ It is explained that when Bresson takes portraits, he likes the sitters not to realise what he is doing, ‘otherwise they will pose, put on a mask and lose spontaneity.’ This same point is made both by Barthes and Hirsch in their works.

Bresson concludes the documentary by telling us that ‘what’s important is what’s next.’ So the past is done and we should concentrate on now. For photographers, I take this as an appeal to remain focused on the moment and not shots or opportunities that have passed.

In viewing the documentary, I learned that by really watching it (several times) and reflecting on the notes I’d taken, I found meaning that was not visible to me initially, helping me reach my own opinion on the much critiqued ‘decisive moment’.

Reference list

Arbaïzar P & Clair J (2003), Henri Cartier-Bresson: the man, the image & the world: a retrospective Thames and Hudson Ltd; Reprint edition (2006).

Barthes R (1979)  Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography Vintage 2000 ed. [see separate post – Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes]
Cartier-Bresson H, L’amour tout court, www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF [accessed 13.4.15]
Gross P L & Shapiro I S (2001) Tao of photography: seeing beyond seeing published in US by Ten Speed Press, Amazon Kindle [accessed 8.2.15]
Marianne Hirsch (1967) Family frames, photography narrative and postmemory Harvard University Press, reissued by the author 2012 [See separate post – Family Frames by Marianne Hirsch]

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