Henri Cartier-Bresson type photography is dead

Above is an example of a Henri Cartier-Bresson photo that’s widely admired and considered museum-worth Art, just because it’s such an awesome photo, even though it’s just a staircase somewhere in France and just some unknown guy riding a bicycle. And while HCB’s photos are presented as being found happenstance, for all we know HCB colluded with the guy in the photo to ride the bicycle down that street.

A photo like this today has zero chance of getting you any type of acclaim. There are thousands of people today, maybe even tens of thousands, who consider themselves “street photographers” and none of them are doing anything especially original. Back in the 1930s, only a handful of people were taking “street photos” and Bresson was the best of that very small group.

Whatever the role of photography is today as art, a single photo of an unknown person on an insignificant street in France doesn’t fit into that role.

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It’s worth noting that the photo isn’t very sharp by modern standards. Demonstrating that maybe you don’t need the world’s most expensive gear to create art. On the other hand, with so many photos on the internet, in order to stand out you probably don’t want it to look sub-par in any way, which means not having the slightest hint of unshaprness when viewed at normal web resolution.

How did I become interested in photography?

Well, I’m afraid I’m going to give away a hint of my age with this post. When I was young, I took some photos with my father’s SLR camera, but I personally never owned a camera at all for many years. After I took a class in oil painting and was having problems with my still life paintings because I suck at drawing, I had this idea that I could take a photograph of a still life setup, and then be able to more accurately draw it from the photograph. So I bought a cheap 35mm point and shoot camera. I had to deal with the problem of the roll of film having 24 photos. After I took a few pictures of my still life set up, what to do with the remaining 20 pictures? So I took some pictures of stuff, landscape scenes at a nearby park. All of the pictures sucked.

Then I decided, maybe if I had a better camera, the pictures would come out better. I bought a refurbished Minolta x370s with a 50mm f/1.7 prime lens for only $150 at a camera store in a local outlet mall. Another roll of print film, developed at Best Buy, and 24 more crappy photos. That was almost the end of my use of film photography.

At that time, digital cameras were first making their way into the market, and the first digital camera I bought was a Sony Mavica, which took 3.5” disks. The pictures were only 1024 pixels wide or something like that. Real pathetic compared to modern digital cameras, but at the time, it was totally amazing to be able to take a picture and then immediately see it on your computer screen. I got hooked on the technology aspects of photography. I had no creative vision, nothing I really wanted to take pictures of, but the technology behind digital photography was just so freaking amazing, I had to buy a better camera! And thus I was led down the road of gear acquisition hell. I should have just stuck with my painting, although my early paintings sucked as bad as my early photography.

NY Times op-ed says Ansel Adams was racist

In NY Times op-ed by Daniel Duane:

I agree with the photographer Ansel Adams that “on entering the Ahwahnee [Hotel], one is conscious of calm and complete beauty echoing the mood of majesty and peace that is the essential quality of Yosemite.” But I also think there is something inescapably sick about a hotel on the site of a torched town copping a little mysto-Indian vibe from the word used by the arsonists’ victims for the valley they called home, and deliberately designed with a pan-Indian motif meant to conjure white fantasy while avoiding reference to any particular Native people.

Adams felt nothing of the sort. A man whose photographs defined Yosemite in the national imagination and yet rarely included Yosemite Indians, Adams wrote of the Ahwahnee that “the Indian motif is supreme,” adding, “The designs are stylized with tasteful sophistication; decidedly Indian, yet decidedly more than Indian, they epitomize the involved and intricate symbolism of primitive man.”

Mr. Duane doesn’t even mention the cultural appropriation of a white man becoming famous for taking photos of lands that rightfully belonged to indigenous Americans.

Is sharpness a bourgeois concept?

Often repeated on internet forums (generally by contrarians) is a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

What is meant by a “bourgeois concept” in the first place? I think that the meaning of “bourgeois” has changed quite a bit since Karl Marx used the term in the 1800s. I think of people who have a modest amount of affluence and career success, but are not members of the true upper class. They are not the CEO’s, but the people with six-figure jobs in middle management or sales. “Bourgeois” implies affluence without the refined taste or understatement of the true upper class. The bourgeois show off their affluence by driving unnecessarily expensive cars like Mercedes, living in McMansions, etc. It’s conspicuous but not sophisticated consumption.

In photography, we can imagine the fellow who can afford to buy a really sharp lens (like the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 which I recently reviewed), but lacks the skill, creativity, vision, etc, to take any photos worthy of such a lens. Yes that would be me, however the worst case of the bourgeois photographer would be the guy who thinks that because he’s using a really expensive camera and lens, he must be taking great photos, when in reality his photos are cr*p. I am aware that I’m not worthy of the lens.

This quote originally appeared in Newsweek. Cartier-Bresson was in his 90s when he said it in conversation with photographer Helmut Newtron, and it’s helpful to understand the context of the quote:

“He had his little Leica,” Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”

The message is not to let gear or sharpness stand in the way of your photography. I think that Cartier-Bresson would approve of people using their iPhones to take photos. Cartier-Bresson was shooting 35mm back when nearly all serious photographers were shooting larger formats. 35mm was the iPhone of the pre-war era. Most of those old street photography photos, the kind for which Cartier-Bresson is famous, are unsharp and grainy by modern standards.