Defining Street Photography, the Cartier-Bressonian Way

Street Photography pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson has come to define the way the photography industry thinks about the genre. This article draws on sources that explains the way the genre has taken shape.


Defining Street Photography

Of what constitutes “street photography”, as such, there is no clear, single, or absolute definition, even though the term is widely used.

The ambiguity lies in the term “street”. The street can be anywhere in the public realm, indoors or out, where Henri Cartier-Bresson’s original phrase to describe street photographs as images on the run, images a la sauvette, encapsulates ducking and diving, weaving through traffic, or pacing along the pavements. It can occur in a village or a city, or even in a conflict zone. It is evocative.

Richard Kalvar of Magnum Photos describes it as the process of capturing “real people doing real things,” which, for many, is grounded in the candid tradition of this type of photography. The archetypal street photograph engages with individuals and finds a space to represent the street.

By being in the world and discovering things, public spaces give way to chance encounters which are, at their core, the heart of so-called street photography.

It is about “improvising, thinking, responding, dealing with people … discovering pictures in public settings, as distinct from planning pictures … You’re open to the possibilities around you,” as Executive Director of the Aperture Foundation Chris Boot says.


Humanity, society, and architectural forms each describe the presence of the street and what it represents.

The history of photography represented by a variety of approaches does not exemplify one right way as there is no one definition of street photography.

The truth is that the street can offer endless opportunities to make different kinds of photographs and, according to tutor Bruce Gilden, it can be extremely limiting to pigeon hole or categorise the practice when working strictly in line with tradition.

The “unexpectedness of the encounters” captures the beauty of the street, alluded to by the tutor Peter van Agtmael.

To challenge the genre’s traditions, new ideas and a unique vision needs to be brought to the fore alongside innovation, which is the key to establishing a personal definition of what the street means.

The Decisive Moment

Street photography is a revered and established practice with a history spanning more than 100 years. Notable contemporary photographers have reimagined what street photography can be which spans all the way back to the notion of “the decisive moment” by the pioneering street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and Magnum Photos has a deep-rooted relationship with the genre.

There is a diversity of unique voices each working to their own vision rather than any certain singular approach; whether this is the vivid social satire of Martin Parr or the wanderings of Cartier-Bresson.

Whether from the visceral and vital or to the charming and lighthearted there is a plethora of visions of what constitutes the genre and throughout the Magnum archives there are evidences of a myriad of approaches; from those who take a slow approach to those who manoeuvre through crowded busy and bustling streets.


Born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France, Henri Cartier-Bresson developed a strong fascination with painting early in his life.

In 1932, he started a life-long journey within photography, having discovered his camera of choice from, the Leica, that moment on after returning from a year in the Ivory Coast.

During World War II he joined an underground organisation to assist prisoners of war and escapees after being made a prisoner of war in 1940 and escaping on his third attempt in 1943.


He filmed a documentary entitled Le Retour (The Return) after he photographed the liberation of Paris with a group of professional journalists in 1945.

In 1947, with Robert Capa, George Rodger and David ‘Chim’ Seymour, Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos.

He published his first book Images à la Sauvette (Images on the Run) in 1952 when he had returned to Europe after three years spent travelling in Asia.

Pauline Vermare, Cultural Director of Magnum Photos, New York, defines Cartier-Bressonian “Decisive Moment” as such:

“One of the most famous concepts that defines street photography is “the decisive moment”, which is a label that has been stuck on Henri Cartier-Bresson for a long time. But Agnès Sire, Artistic Director of the Foundation Cartier-Bresson, has been arguing and demonstrating over the past few years that “the decisive moment” was not something that Cartier-Bresson was really talking about.

“As beautiful as it is, one of the limitations of “the decisive moment” – when everything comes together, the content and the composition – is that there is a lot of beauty in the “indecisive moment”, the weak moment in the photograph, when nothing seems to be happening.

“This is because photography is not always about just one frame; photography is very much about the series, the sequencing of images.”

Words by Elijah (Content Marketer) via Digital Camera World.