Andy Adams of FlakPhoto has a quote up on his Facebook page that has me on my soap box this morning:

“People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

The context on this quote is illuminating as many will interpret this as hailing the all-mighty image without regard to technical expertise. This is something that continually bothers me as a photographic/imaging educator because the actual photographic prints I see in galleries continue to slacken in their quality. HCB was dealing with an entirely different set of technical issues as he set out to curate time and space through the cyclopean gaze of a Leica viewfinder.

“Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see….The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.” – HCB

Only after mastering technique can one truly discard it. Photographers who have mastered technique understand this, while those who need to spend more time on their craft will not. This is the crux of where this quote-mining is incredibly misleading and not one to be re-Tweeted. Additionally, this quote makes it sound like HCB is advocating thinking while photographing, which he never did. His work is often spoken of related to the idea of “thin slicing”, which is the antithesis of thinking. How about this quote printed large across pages 2 & 3 of Westerbeck and Meyerowitz’s book Bystander: A History of Street Photography in which they have a conversation about Winogrand:


Westerbeck: I remember hearing Garry and the rest of you often calling pictures “tough” or “beautiful.” Why was “tough” such a key word for you?

Meyerowitz: “Tough” meant it was an uncompromising image, something that came from your gut, out of instinct, raw, of the moment, something that couldn’t be described in any other way. So it was TOUGH. Tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, tough to understand. The tougher they were the more beautiful they became. It was our language.


HCB wanted to talk about this “tough language” which precedes thought. In my opinion, pulling this quote from the context of HCB’s discussion in today’s photographic world puts it in an entirely different and incorrect context to which HCB would be appalled. Of course, doing so has meant we are talking “tough language,” so he would probably approve. </soap box>