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Zen in the Art of HCB

Erica McDonald filed a response that I found moving to the post below, “Famous Photographers Tell How,” which is about a rare 1958 vinyl recording of several photographers explaining their approaches. She decided to transcribe the entire section where Henri Cartier-Bresson speaks and make it available on her website along with transcripts of several other photographers whom she has heard at various times (look under “scribbling in the dark”). It leads me to recount a story about Henri when I interviewed him for a history of Magnum Photos that I wrote in the late 1980s.

Henri, who described himself at times as “a nervous Buddhist,” told me then that there were four books that were essential to read. One of them was Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, a Westerner who had lived in Japan. Right after the interview I went to a Paris bookstore to find it, and on occasion have used it in my own courses on photography. I leave you with a passage by Herrigel from the book which may in some ways describe Henri’s photographic approach better even than his famous “decisive moment”:

“Should one ask… how the Japanese Masters understand this contest of the archer with himself, and how they describe it, their answer would sound enigmatic in the extreme. For them the contest exists in the archer aiming at himself—and yet not at himself, in hitting himself—and yet not himself, and thus becoming simultaneously the aimer and the aim, the hitter and the hit. Or, to use some expressions which are nearest the heart of the Masters, it is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved center. Then comes the supreme and ultimate miracle: art becomes “artless,” shooting becomes not-shooting, a shooting without bow and arrow; the teacher becomes a pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning, and the beginning perfection.”

One Comment

  1. brian merrigan wrote:

    cartier breeson ,in his latter years ,when ambition gives way to reflection ,states that photography is a craft ,at which he excelled ,bringing the skills of the great painters,and the rule of thirds and geometry to that little rectangle that was the view finder of his leica ,he truly loved the spontanity of the moment

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

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