I remember the exact place and moment when the fly-on-the-wall magic of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson saved me: 1996, Mr. Royster's photography class, fourth period, probably the third week of my senior year at Anaheim High School. Mr. Royster was trying to lecture about the art of photography to a roomful of rowdy Latino kids to no avail. We—at least the boys; at least me—were too busy using zoom lenses to sneak peeks at the décolletage of our female classmates. Exasperated after a couple of minutes, Mr. Royster dimmed the lights and began playing a 1970s-era Time-Life slide show on great photographers.
The joyous ramblings of an elderly French gentleman soon screeched through the darkness from an audiocassette player. It was Cartier-Bresson, and he was claiming he wasn't a photographer at all—what he really wanted to do was paint. His feistiness piqued my interest away from playing Peeping Tomás, but it was the accompanying image that awoke me.
Projected on a half-ripped screen was a monkey inside a laboratory, his body immobilized so that scientists could perform God-knows-what experiments on him. The monkey's mouth was closed in a terrified, silent clench; massive computers buttressed the simian. The only other object in the frame was a barely visible swath of a scientist's lab coat exiting the bottom corner of the picture. The inclusion of the coat seemed like an error on Cartier-Bresson's behalf, but it added a layer of human menace that made the shot infinitely more powerful had the coat not been visible.
Mr. Royster had previously told us we should crop out any stray object in the frame, but now Cartier-Bresson was telling us notto. “To me,” Cartier-Bresson wheezed in French, “photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization [of] the forms that give that event its proper expression.” Later, I would discover this was his definition of the famed “decisive moment,” but at the time, it was a thought that opened my eyes to the amazing, incandescent reality the world is for me today.
Cartier-Bresson, who died Aug. 5 at 95, earned his fame with shots like that monkey. He possessed an almost-omniscient lens that knew exactly which nanosecond was the best to close the shutter. Cartier-Bresson moved easily between portraits of individuals, crowds and landscapes, but what attracted me most to his oeuvre—and continues to this day—is his idea that perfection flows and ebbs, that it's the duty of the photographer to capture perfection for posterity.
“The writer has time to reflect,” Cartier-Bresson once wrote. “He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper, he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. . . . But for photographers, what has gone is gone forever. We cannot do the story over and over again once we've got back to the hotel. Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera.”
That Cartier-Bresson monkey reconstituted me in a way that still affects me today. Before, I was on the verge of becoming a statistic. My grades were terrible—college plans didn't even aspire to Fullerton College. Entering the truck-driving business alongside my immigrant father seemed the only sure way I wouldn't end up a gang member, an 18-year-old father or a military cadet. Life was a dead end.
But after that Cartier-Bresson introduction, I joined the yearbook staff. I became its principal photographer—did I mention my hands had never held a non-automatic camera before?—and eventually put the yearbook $2,000 over budget because I insisted on snapping a roll of film every day. I read up on Cartier-Bresson's philosophy and mimicked his strategies: used black tape to mask the silver portions of my Canon and render myself less visible, insisted on working in black-and-white, refused to use a flash, refused to crop or artificially shade anything. That love of photography quickly transformed into one for filmmaking; my talent in that area took me from Orange Coast College to Chapman University to UCLA to my current job—reviewing hole-in-the-wall restaurants and writing on the Catholic Church.
I don't take many photographs anymore—I'm now a different sort of invisible observer. But Cartier-Bresson still maintains a place in my heart, for it was he who showed me the importance of place and time, of knowing what is brilliant and what is merely good, and of constantly seeking both. All thanks to a tortured monkey and a blurred lab coat.