Environmental Portraits Teachers: Henri Cartier-Bresson

‘Environmental portrait’ is probably one of the wordiest of many names given to a seemingly straightforward photographic genre. To me it is precisely ‘taking photos of a person where you find him’, the most commonly practised photography activity in news and photojournalism, documentary, street, travel photography and all other ‘snappy happy’ situations. If you see environmental portrait as a subcategory of portraits, it fits the bill that a person is the dominant subject matter of a photo. However, the person is not (paid to be) posed or staged by the photographer in an artificial space (e.g.. in a studio). Environment portraits are usually taken in a place that represents the subject person’s identity or personality. The photographer’s message is delivered not only via the subject person himself but also the situation he finds himself in.

35mm lenses have the perfect profile for environmental portraits. They are wide enough to cater for both the subject and the surroundings, yet they are not too wide so the viewer’s attention is guided to the subject. The discreet size of a typical 35mm lens means it is easy for the photographer to blend into the environment and get close to the subject person without causing too much distraction. In this series let’s explore the environmental portraits teachers and masters who led the way in this genre and showed us endless possibilities. So sit tight and fasten your seat belt.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004)

Arguably one of the most influential street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson is a master of candid photography. Having received formal painting education in his early years, Henri has the sensitivity to identify 35mm street photography ( as opposed to 4×5 press format or the twin-lens medium format photography) as a new form of art. Henri was influenced in his early years by the then French Surrealist movement, which believed in finding the unusual from the usual. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous ‘decisive moment’ can be found stemmed from the Surrealist approach, he said: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” He introduced the element of time, the ‘moment’, into the discovery of new meaning in otherwise mundane photos. With his Leica rangefinder camera freezing decisive moments, he created masterpieces never seen before him.

Photo#1: the leading line, the classical composition

Country to the introduction above, in this photo Henri took a very traditional, almost textbook approach to composition. The layout is no different to a classical painting. With the three young men in the front ground, facing away from the viewer but towards the two ladies in the background and another group of people near the river. The view’s focal point is led naturally in a curve, gradually led by the distance from the front to the back, elegantly completes the S-shaped composition and finishes in the infinity point in the far end of the horizon. The hidden leading line in the composition is used so discreetly as opposed to the many attempted leading line compositions involving ‘highway’ or ‘railway’. I am sure if you google ‘leading line’ you will see a few of these. Overall this photo seems candid, but the ‘textbook’ positioning of every person in the photo, including the positioning of the photographer himself, can be seen as a decisive moment captured.


Photo#2: balance, rhythm, the rule of thirds

In this Photo, there is a sense of balance and rhythm found in the seemingly busy and cluttered scene. There are almost a dozen people here. Looking more closely, we are able to see the photographer applied the ‘rule of thirds’: the lady laying on her side, facing away from the viewer is the front ground, the rest of the people laying on the ground, yet smaller in proportion, is the middle ground, the wall and three standing persons are the backgrounds. Each component takes up ⅓ of the space in the photograph. In the middle ground, everyone seems to lay down in a circle, surrounding the empty space in the centre of the photo. The background wall has a white downpipe in the dead centre of the photo. All these elements gave the photo a sense of symmetry. The visual interest of the photo is that every person poses his or her body in a unique way. The monochrome photo, the exposed body and limbs of the people make the whole photograph comparable to an artistic sketch of human bodies, but without the models realizing!


Photo#3: subject matter, message behind the photo

I like this interesting environment portrait so much that I included it despite it clearly being a 50mm lens photo. It is a portrait Henri took for the Austrian painter Georg Eisler. There is not much to talk about the positioning of elements and the overall composition, yet what is very interesting is that the painter seems to be hiding behind his self-portrait. What is the subject of this portrait? Is the painter the subject matter with his painting as the environment, or vice versa? The hidden painter intensifies this uncertainty and created drama. This also led viewers to think about the message Henri Cartier-Bresson tries to deliver here. My interpretation is that perhaps the painter sees painting a higher form of art that should be presented. The painter, Georg Eisler would prefer to be remembered as the person he created in the self-portrait rather than the ‘real person’ in a photograph. This message, although seemingly against everything a photographer stands for, was cleverly recognized and captured in this photograph in a non-conflicting way. Honestly, I have not seen an environmental portrait that has been carried out closer to perfection than this one.

Facts about Henri Cartier-Bresson

  • The most famous quote Henri left as a legacy for many street photographers are ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.’ He explains this in one of his interviews with the Washington Post in 1956: “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
  • Cartier-Bresson nearly always used a Leica 35 mm rangefinder camera fitted with a normal 50 mm lens, or occasionally a wide-angle lens (such as a 35mm lens) for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera’s chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white film and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph events unnoticed.
  • He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. He insisted that his prints be left uncropped so as to include a few millimetres of the unexposed negative around the image area, resulting in a black frame around the developed picture.
  • Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white and showed a considerable lack of interest in the process of photography in general, likening photography with the small camera to an “instant drawing”.
  • He denied that the term “art” applied to his photographs. Instead, he thought that they were merely his gut reactions to fleeting situations that he had happened upon.
  • His famous quote which led to his recognition as a ‘humanist photographer’ is: “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotiv.’

Photo credit: this article contains photos taken by and belong to © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos. The photos have been downloaded with permission, carried the required watermark and have not been cropped, trimmed, modified or retouched.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like: 

Environmental Portraits Teachers: Eve Arnold

Environmental Portrait Photograph: How to Approach Anyone

Alternatively, add these books to your collection and continue reading about Henri Cartier-Bresson and his masterpieces:

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now

Henri Cartier Bresson: Scrapbook

Henri Cartier Bresson: Scrapbook

Henri Cartier Bresson: Scrapbook

16 thoughts on “Environmental Portraits Teachers: Henri Cartier-Bresson

  1. Hello,
    I think you picked out a great niche that has so many potential for success. I considered picking the same but have no clue about photography so I backed out. Your website looks great. Thanks for the detailed history about environmental photography. Didn’t know such name exist but you have educated me well with this article. Now I know who started environmental photography (Henri Cartier-Bresson) and I can actually engage in a discuss about it. Thanks

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Celestine. I appreciate it. There are a lot of gems when looking back into the history of human civilization. Every little detail about a subject matter (i.e. environmental photography) will lead to a vast amount of literature once studied. I am by no means bragging and boasting here but sharing the little bits and pieces of information I gathered and found interesting. While we are both busy creating contents here, a great deal of engaging material is already there waiting for us to uncover. All the best, Eric.

  2. Eric,

    Thank you for this well-written and educational article. Your writing style kept me enthralled to the end, and I was disappointed it did end. Anyway, I’ve got to go read everything else here, too!

    Even if Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t think his work is art, I sure do! I especially like black-and-white, because I often find colors a distraction from the details. Do you agree?

    I learned a lot from this article by the way you described important elements in each picture. And even though you are an expert, you write in a way that’s easy for novices, like me, to follow. Great job!

    Is street photography your favorite to compose? What other styles you like?


    1. Hi Laura, thanks for the interesting questions. Black and white photograph is definitely a form of art. I totally agree to you that once the colour is taken away from the photo, an artistic meaning reveals above and beyond the utilitarian meaning of it.

      I personally enjoy using a 35mm lens to capture anything that I encounter. Yes, it does mean street photography in many occasions thanks to the convenience of my day job in CBD. I also take portraits of people and things I found. When travelling I carry both my Ricoh GR II and Pentax K-1 so that I am able to enjoy both landscape shots as well as travel documentary photography. Recently I committed to hosting my first personal photo exhibution and am working on a few projects.

      Have a great day.

  3. This was amazing in my opinion.

    The subject that you chose was interesting and with your writing style, you made it work well.

    I also love your theme as I am still trying to figure out which one I would like to run with.

    Again, that was a great post and I will try my best to keep up with it.


    1. Hi Kiese, much appreciated. When choosing a theme I know I am looking for an almost monochrome, clean and minimalist looking one. This is in line with many 35mm lens photographers who prefers to use black and white to express their artistic ideas.I am sure you will find one that suits your website too. Kind regards, Eric

  4. Hi Eric,
    This is one of the most informative and interesting posts I have read for ages. I got lost in the whole experience. What talent. I hope you will be doing a lot more of these types of posts as I will certainly be following you with interest.
    I am just learning about photography now at the ripe old age of 74. My husband has a Nikon but as he is now in Frail Care, I have just begun using it and am loving it.
    Not too sure what I am doing yet but will learn. I found this post very helpful and will go back to it and reread it.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Jill it is fantastic to learn you are learning photography at 74, there is certainly no age limit to learning and enjoying new things. I believe your life experience and wisdom will add colour to the photographs you take. Please do check back and let me know how you go. Kind regards, Eric

  5. Wow. Really well laid out post and I love the images you chose. The second one in particular really highlights the rule of thirds and shows how a scene that initially looks unorganized is actually perfectly framed. Nicely done!

    1. Hi Eric, the second photo was my favourite too. Sometimes I wonder how ‘lucky’ one has to be to take a perfect, candid photo. Maybe these opportunities are just around us if we look carefully enough. Relax and always carry a camera! cheers, Eric

  6. This is a fascinating article! I love how you pointed out how, although they look like candid shots, you can actually see that the photographer was very intentional with the layout of the people and the scenery in the pictures. Candid photos are my favorite but I’m terrible at taking them!

    1. Hi Kayla, candid photos can be very scary to take! When I am doing street photography I had to look away or look beyond the person I am taking photos of, to pretend that I am shooting something further away. Sometimes I was very close to the subject that they do not even believe I am taking a photo of them. Shooting from the ‘hip’ is also a good option if you remind yourself to look away when pressing the button. Candid photos are very fund indeed. Thanks for visiting my site. Regards, Eric

  7. Great site. I learned quite a bit about Henri and think some of his artwork is quite beautiful. The artists sure do have intention with every movement.

    1. Thanks, I agree with your observation 100%. Although his photos are truly candid, they are not random. Henri has the ability to identify the perfect photo composition in a split second and press the button. To me, it is amazing that he had to do this on rolls of films which has very little room for error. How lucky we are to have digital cameras!

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