Digital Life

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A vision for perfection

Disdaining convention, he wanted every photo to be a masterpiece.

HENRI Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. He was also a prickly and haughty individual with total confidence in his own artistic superiority. And he created thousands of masterpieces with the simplest equipment, even if it did bear the famous name of Leica.

His biographer, Pierre Assouline (Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography, Thames & Hudson, $33.95) tells something of the man's working methods. He used a Leica M4 or 3G, with the chrome covered with black tape to make them less conspicuous. He had one preferred lens, a 50-millimetre Elmar ''that doesn't cheat because it allows the photographer to view the world at eye level''. He usually carried, but rarely used, a 90mm and a 35mm lens.

The 50mm prime on a 35mm film camera is considered the ''standard'' lens because its perspective comes close to matching the eye, seeing the world the way we do. Those of us who bought our first cameras in the 1950s and '60s remember them coming with 50mm lenses and, for most of us, that was all we had. The Pentax S1, the first mass-market single-lens reflex camera, came with a screw-mount 55mm Takumar lens, justly famed for its sharpness and contrast.

Cartier-Bresson's cameras had no automatic metering or autofocus. ''When it came to measuring light and distance, he relied on instinct,'' Assouline writes. Not so much instinct, we would suggest, more experience. His set shutter speed was 1/125th of a second, so he only had to adjust the aperture to suit the light. His film stock was Kodak Tri-X rated at ISO 400 and ''flash, to him, was an act of barbarism … that cut off all human feeling''.

The most challenging of Cartier-Bresson's self-imposed rules was the one that stipulated there should be no cropping of his images. As a photojournalist working on assignment for magazines, he reluctantly accepted the prerogative of the editor and designer to crop his photos, but he always detested the results. His composition in the Leica viewfinder was, in his opinion, perfect. His early training and his ambition was as an artist, not a photographer, and he had an artist's obsession with the integrity of his original vision.

Early in his photographic career he observed that the interesting subject is rarely the parade, which everyone else will photograph anyway, but the faces and actions of the spectators. In 1937, he was sent to London by Ce Soir as part of a team to report on the coronation of George VI. On the day, ''he was more interested in people's faces than in all the ceremony … He simply turned his back on the parade and looked for reflections of the coronation in the expressions and attitudes of the people watching it.''

Keep that in mind next year when you go to Moomba or the Anzac Day parade.