What Henri Cartier-Bresson Meant by This Quote | Light Stalking

What Henri Cartier-Bresson Meant by This Quote

By Jason Row / October 16, 2015

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
Continuing our series on deconstructing iconic quotes and applying them to modern photography, today we are looking at the above quote from arguably the greatest street photographer of them all.
Henri Cartier-Bresson 1908-2004 – Street and Documentary Photographer.
Born in North East France, Cartier-Bresson was the master of the phrase he coined, capturing the “decisive moment.” He initially trained as an artist and was heavily inspired by the surrealist movement of the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Cartier-Bresson took to photography, still heavily inspired by the surrealist movement, he sought to capture the intimate and natural in life rather than the more formal aspects that photography was known for up until that point.

Cartier-Bresson: The master of the “decisive moment” by cea +

Getting to 10,000 Images
Cartier-Bresson’s quote is an interesting one for the digital age. Mainly because we get there so much quicker than in his day. Ten thousand images shot on 35mm film is the equivalent of nearly 300 rolls of 36 exposure film and its incumbent expense. Today, shooting jpeg on a 16mp camera, that would fit on one 64gb SD Card. The throw away nature of digital imaging means that we can be at that 10,000 shot mark in a matter of weeks after picking up our first camera. However, there are a couple of important points about the 10,000 image mark, and that is, that we are learning the basics and laying down the basis for our own unique style.

Getting to 10,000 in the digital era is pretty easy, by See-ming Lee

Is the 10,000 Image Mark Still Relevant?
The answer to that is yes, no and maybe. If you are just starting out on your photographic journey what you will learn inside 10,000 images is more down to your character than anything else. If you are a carefree, happy snapper, then the chances are 10,000 is going to be too low for you to progress your knowledge to any great extent. For the more considered and patient person, shooting 10,000 may well provide a huge range of experience.
If you are truly wanting to learn photography well, then setting a number such as 10,000 images can be a good exercise. By taking your time and getting there slowly, you can learn from your mistakes, spot trends within your image making and see tangible progress in your photographic abilities. Don’t get fixated on the number though, trying to chase it will cause you to speed up your image making process and possibly skip steps, ignore mistakes or not spot trends. It is best to not count the shots until you are at or above the 10,000 mark, then look back and see how you have progressed.
It's also worth noting that it is quite possible that Cartier-Bresson used the figure of 10,000 because it had a nice ring to it and not because of any cast iron rule.

Attaining a high level of technical and artistic competence inside 10,000 shots is more about character than ability. By https://www.flickr.com/photos/mypubliclands/

What Happens After 10,000 Images?
One of the good things about setting the 10,000 image mark is that you have a reference point to refer to. It can mark the end of your apprenticeship in photography and the start of the road to specialisation. Looking back over your first 10,000 you will not only now have the experience to spot trends with in you photography but also be able to isolate issues such as poor technique and even laziness. Whilst the quote suggests that the first 10,000 will be your worst, in fact amongst those images will be some real gems, keepers or even potential portfolio shots. These are the images that will be the cornerstones of your future photographic journey.
If you take inspiration and knowledge from your first 10k shots, the next 10k will be a significant improvement and will also be, almost certainly, more specialised.

After 10,000 images you may start to find your style and niche. By John Bastoen

Should I Stick to the 10,000 Rule?
The simple answer is only you know the answer to that. As mentioned above, if you are the methodical, patient type then yes, 10k is a good starting point. If you are more carefree and less methodical, then you might find that rather than setting a shooting limit you may benefit more from a time limit, say one year.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the most important and influential photographers not only of his time but in the history of photography. Whilst his quote of 10,000 images may well be what we, in modern times, like to call a soundbite, it is a useful point for newcomers to photography to aspire to. On reaching 10k, you can look back and truly see what direction your photography is taking.

About the author

Jason Row

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here

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