Henri Cartier-Bresson: L’amour tout court

A personal response to Raphaël O’Byrne’s L’amour tout court film interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson in L’amour tout court (O’Byrne, 2001)

In the early 1990s psychologist Richard Wiseman placed advertisements in newspapers and magazines asking people who felt consistently lucky or unlucky to contact him, and ran a simple experiment:

I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than two inches high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.
For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.
– Wiseman (2003)

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson in O’Byrne (2001)

Cartier-Bresson talks about his lack of connection to the Judeo-Christian tradition and says he has far more time for Eastern spiritual values. He mentions Buddhism as a particular influence, and the idea of allowing what you wish for to come to you instead of running after it is clearly a very zen concept. It is prominent in yogic teachings too, where chasing something is seen as the best way of ensuring that it recedes further from you, not least because if you actively pursue what you think you want, you have already decided upon its shape and form, and in doing so you’ve shut down your ability to recognise opportunities when they appear in front of you. Receptiveness is the key.

I look, I look, I look. It’s an obsession.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson in O’Byrne (2001)

My own experience in hunting for vintage lamps in flea markets, junk shops and house-clearance sales in Denmark taught me the difference between ordinary looking and intense looking. I find it takes a day or so to “get my eye in” if it’s been a while since my last hunting trip. What’s required is a state of alertness whereby all your radar is switched on and you never stop looking for a moment, even as you’re leaving a place to move on to the next one. It’s often the unexpected or last-second nooks and crannies that are hiding a treasure. Once you have your eye in, it becomes intuitive and you can spot the one good thing in a pile of junk with a single glance. Cartier-Bresson mentions several times in the film the extent to which he relies upon his intuition, and this again reflects the influence of Eastern ways of understanding and experiencing the world, in which intuition tends to be given more emphasis and credence than in the West.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

All in all I found what Cartier-Bresson had to say inspiring and encouraging, especially in view of the Decisive Moment assignment ahead. To condense what I took from the film into a single sentence: “Be alert, look, don’t presuppose what you’re looking for, follow your intuition and let yourself see what is there waiting to be found.”

References and resources

O’Byrne, R. (2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson: L’amour Tout Court. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF [accessed 07/02/18]
Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘Be lucky – it’s an easy skill to learn’. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3304496/Be-lucky-its-an-easy-skill-to-learn.html [accessed 07/02/18]