Henri Cartier-Bresson with his Leica.

The famous quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that taking a photograph is nothing more than an instant drawing to him. Thinking about what that actually means, can in fact help us to understand how to make better photographs.

“All I care about these days is painting. Photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.” 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

This quote can easily be mis-interpreted. At first glance, it seems like a simple thing to say, but there’s actually much more to it.

If you’ve ever been drawing or painting seriously, you know how much effort goes into making good artwork. Photography eliminates the trouble of actually having to do the shading and rendering, but that is just one half of the entire process. You could argue that is the easy part. The harder part is the design and the content of the image. What is the drawing about? That same question is still present in photography, even though you don’t have to worry about your drawing technique as such. 

Having a vision and being receptive

An artist typically has to have an idea what they’d like to draw. Without a vision, the artist might end up in doodles or a blank sketch book. Photographer will also need a vision or an idea of what they’d like to capture. That’s not to say, you could go after a specific image. That would never probably happen because the subject can emerge out of nowhere and be almost anything. The key to catching them is to be open to the possibilities (being receptive, as Cartier-Bresson put it). You can only vision what kind of image you’re going after. 

In that respect, it’s like going to the flea market: it’s not a super market and you can’t really take a shopping list of specific items with you. You can only decide that you’d want to hunt down old records for example. There’s a chance you’ll find some, even though you can’t know in advance, which records you’ll find. It’s a sheer luck and it may turn out to be something else than records. Receptiveness can enable you to find some real treasures. 

How the quote helps us in deciding what to photograph?

Okay, but back to the drawing analogy. What really makes this quote valuable, is to think whether a particular subject would be worth of drawing. Would I invest hours and hours of work into drawing mindless artwork? Finding the subject is a hard job and many photographers will shoot compromised subjects out of frustration, hoping it somehow to turn out ok.

What if you’d have a drawing pad and a pencil with you instead of the camera? Would you really sit down to draw an image of that bike rack?