Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) was a French photographer who spent a considerable part of his career working from the United States. He was an early adopter of 35 mm format, enjoying the ease with which he could use the small Leica camera to take photographs unobtrusively. A master of candid photography, his humane and spontaneous photographs helped establish photojournalism as an art form. His "street photography" style has influenced generations of photographers. Cartier-Bresson was one of the founders of Magnum Photos. Together with Robert Capa, David Seymour (known as "Chim"), William Vandivert, and George Rodger, he was a one of the original and key figures in this unique community of early photojournalists. Cartier-Bresson had served as a photographer during World War II (as had the other Magnum founders), including work with the French Resistance following his escape from a German prisoner of war camp, and it was even rumored that he had been killed during the war.
Cartier-Bresson was an artist, not just a photographer or photojournalist. In fact, his first and later works were drawings and paintings, landscapes and portraits. In a sense, he regarded photography as a type of painting, a way of capturing "the decisive moment" instantly. It was the underlying significance of an event that was the essence that Cartier-Bresson sought, not merely the external form or composition of a picture. His belief that photography can capture the meaning beneath outward appearance in moments of extraordinary clarity is best expressed in his book, Images à la sauvette (The Decisive Moment).
The recipient of numerous awards, Cartier-Bresson was to the end a man who disliked publicity, especially the type of celebrity publicity that accompanies the famous. His works continue to inspire and inform the public, with their aesthetic qualities as well as the depth of meaning that is found in the images he captured. And beyond the visual images, Cartier-Bresson also wrote extensively and magnificently about his work, his methods, his vision, and his insights into the nature of human life. He used a small camera, often disguised with black tape, and made every effort to blend in with his environment, moving according to the flow of events. The results offer a beautiful and deeply meaningful insight into human society, reflecting both the good and the bad, preserving reality for future generations.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on August 22, 1908, in Chanteloup-en-Brie, near Paris, France, the eldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. He also sketched in his spare time. His mother's family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy, where Henri spent part of his childhood.
The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris, near the Europe Bridge. Henri was raised in a traditional French bourgeois fashion, required to address his parents as vous rather than the familiar tu. His father assumed that his son would take up the family business, but Henri was headstrong and was appalled by this prospect. However, his family was able to provide him with financial support to develop his interests in photography in a more independent manner than many of his contemporaries.
As a young boy, Henri owned a Box Brownie, using it for taking holiday snapshots. His uncle Louis, a gifted painter, introduced Cartier-Bresson to oil painting:
Painting has been my obsession from the time that my "mythical father," my father's brother, led me into his studio during the Christmas holidays in 1913, when I was five years old. There I lived in the atmosphere of painting; I inhaled the canvases (Nolan and Slaughter 1999).
Uncle Louis' painting lessons were cut short, however, when he died in World War I.
Henri studied in Paris at the École Fénelon, a Catholic school. In 1927, at the age of 19, he entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. Lhote's ambition was to unify the Cubists' approach to reality with classical artistic forms, and to link the French classical tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David to Modernism. Lhote took his pupils to the Louvre to study classical artists and to Parisian galleries to study contemporary art. Cartier-Bresson's interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissance—of masterpieces from Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca. Cartier-Bresson often regarded Lhote as his teacher of photography without a camera.
Cartier-Bresson also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche. During this period, he read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels, and Marx.
Although Cartier-Bresson gradually began to feel uncomfortable with Lhote's "rule-laden" approach to art, his rigorous theoretical training would later help him to confront and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe, but each had a different view on the direction photography should take. The photography revolution had begun. The Surrealist movement (founded in 1924) was a catalyst for this paradigm shift. While still studying at Lhote's studio, Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. He met a number of the movement's leading protagonists, and was particularly drawn to the Surrealist movement of linking the subconscious and the immediate to their work. Peter Galassi (1991) explains:
The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton…approached the street: With a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual… The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended the University of Cambridge, studying English art and literature and becoming bilingual. In 1930, he did his mandatory service in the French Army stationed at Le Bourget, near Paris. He remembered, "And I had quite a hard time of it, too, because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder" (Kimmelman 2004).
In 1931, once out of the army and after having read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Cartier-Bresson sought adventure on the Côte d'Ivoire, within French colonial Africa: "I left Lhote's studio because I did not want to enter into that systematic spirit. I wanted to be myself. To paint and to change the world counted for more than everything in my life" (Nolan and Slaughter 1999). He survived by shooting game and selling it to local villagers. From hunting, he learned methods that he would later use in his photography techniques. Although Cartier-Bresson took a portable camera (smaller than a Brownie Box) to Côte d'Ivoire, only seven photographs survived the tropics (Montier 1996, 12).
On the Côte d'Ivoire, he contracted blackwater fever, which nearly killed him. While still feverish he sent instructions for his own funeral, writing his grandfather and asking to be buried in Normandie, at the edge of the Eawy forest while Debussy's String Quartet played. An uncle wrote back, "Your grandfather finds all that too expensive. It would be preferable that you return first" (Morris 2004).
Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson recuperated in Marseille in 1931, and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. He became inspired by a 1931 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, this captured the freedom, grace, and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive.
This photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant" (Fayard 2003). He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as "an extension of his eye" (Nolan and Slaughter 1999). The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography—the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He said, "I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to 'trap' life" (Morris 2004).
Restless, he photographed in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, and Madrid. His photographs were first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934, in Mexico, he shared an exhibition with Manuel Alvarez Bravo. In the beginning, he did not photograph much in his native France. In fact, it was years before he photographed there extensively.
In 1934, Cartier-Bresson met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin, who was called "Chim" because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin later changed his name to David Seymour. The two had much in common culturally. Through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met Hungarian photographer Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa. The three shared a studio in the early 1930s and Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson:
Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don't fidget. Get moving (Richards 2004).
With Chim and Capa, Cartier-Bresson was a leftist, but he did not join the French Communist party. Later, in the United States, they formed Magnum Photos.
Cartier-Bresson traveled to America in 1935, with an invitation to exhibit his work at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. He shared display space with fellow photographers Walker Evans and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Carmel Snow, of Harper's Bazaar, gave him a fashion assignment, but he fared poorly since he had no idea how to direct or interact with the models. Nevertheless, Snow was the first American editor to publish Cartier-Bresson's photographs in a magazine. While in New York, he met photographer Paul Strand, who did camera work for the Depression-era documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains.
Cartier-Bresson's first photojournalist photos to be published came in 1937, when he covered the coronation of King George VI, for the French weekly, Regards. He focused on the new monarch's adoring subjects lining the London streets, and took no pictures of the king. His photo credit read "Cartier," as he was hesitant to use his full family name.
When he returned to France, Cartier-Bresson applied for a job with renowned French film director, Jean Renoir. He acted in Renoir's 1936 film, Partie de campagne, and in the 1939 La Règle du jeu, for which he played a butler and served as second assistant. Renoir made Cartier-Bresson act so he could understand how it felt to be on the other side of the camera. Cartier-Bresson also helped Renoir make a film for the Communist party on the 200 families, including his own, who ran France. During the Spanish civil war, Cartier-Bresson co-directed an anti-fascist film with Herbert Kline, to promote the Republican medical services.
In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married a Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. Between 1937 and 1939, Cartier-Bresson worked as a photographer for the French Communists' evening paper, Ce Soir. He joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit when World War II broke out in September 1939.
During the Battle of France, in June 1940, at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains, he was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labor under the Nazis. As Cartier-Bresson put it, he was forced to perform "thirty-two different kinds of hard manual labor" and worked “as slowly and as poorly as possible” (Morris 2004). He twice tried and failed to escape from the prison camp, and was punished by solitary confinement. His third escape was successful and he hid on a farm in Touraine before getting false papers that allowed him to travel. In France, he worked for the underground, aiding other escapees and working secretly with other photographers to cover the Occupation, and then the Liberation, of France. In 1943, he dug up his beloved Leica camera, which he had buried in farmland near Vosges. By the time of the armistice, he was asked by the American Office of War Information to make a documentary, Le Retour (The Return) about returning French prisoners and displaced persons.
Towards the end of the War, rumors had reached America that Cartier-Bresson had been killed. However, his film on returning war refugees (released in the United States in 1947) spurred a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) instead of the posthumous show that MoMA had been preparing. The show debuted in 1947, together with the publication of his first book, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall wrote the book's text.
In 1967, he was divorced from his first wife, Ratna "Elie." He married photographer Martine Franck, thirty years younger than himself, in 1970. The couple had a daughter, Mélanie, in May 1972.
Eventually, he began to turn away from photography and return to his passion for drawing and painting. Cartier-Bresson withdrew as a principal of Magnum (which still distributed his photographs) in 1966, to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes. Retiring from photography in the early 1970s, by 1975 he no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait; he said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out. He returned to drawing and painting. After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through photography, he said, "All I care about these days is painting—photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing" (Phillips 2004). He held his first exhibition of drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York in 1975.
Cartier-Bresson died in Céreste (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France) in 2004, at 95. No cause of death was announced. He was buried in the Cimetière de Montjustin, Alpes de Haute Provence, France. He was survived by his wife, Martine Franck, and daughter, Mélanie. The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation was created by Cartier-Bresson, his wife, and daughter in 2003, to preserve and share his legacy.
In spring 1947, Cartier-Bresson, with Robert Capa, David "Chim" Seymour, William "Bill" Vandivert, and George Rodger, founded Magnum Photos. Capa's brainchild, Magnum was a cooperative picture agency owned by its members. The team split photo assignments among the members. Rodger, who had quit Life in London after covering World War II, would cover Africa and the Middle East. Chim, who spoke most European languages, would work in Europe. Cartier-Bresson would be assigned to India and China. Vandivert, who had also left Life, would work in America, and Capa would work anywhere that had an assignment. Maria Eisner managed the Paris office and Rita Vandivert, Vandivert's wife, managed the New York office and became Magnum's first president.
Magnum's mission was to "feel the pulse" of the times and some of its first projects were People Live Everywhere, Youth of the World, Women of the World, and The Child Generation. Magnum aimed to use photography in the service of humanity, and provided arresting, widely viewed images, as described by Cartier-Bresson:
Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually (Magnum Photos).
Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948, and the last (1949) stage of the Chinese Civil War. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing, as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he went on to Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where he documented the gaining of independence from the Dutch.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book Images à la sauvette, whose English edition was titled The Decisive Moment. It included a portfolio of 126 of his photos from the East and the West. The cover art was drawn by Henri Matisse. For his 4,500-word philosophical preface, Cartier-Bresson took his keynote text from the seventeenth century Cardinal de Retz: Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif ("There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment"). Cartier-Bresson applied this to his photographic style:
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression (Cartier-Bresson 1952).
Cartier-Bresson held his first exhibition in France at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre in 1955.
"Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever" (Bernstein 2004).
Cartier-Bresson used Leica 35 mm rangefinder cameras which he often wrapped in black tape to make less conspicuous. No longer bound by a huge 4×5 press camera or an awkward two and a quarter inch twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called "the velvet hand [and] the hawk's eye" (Van Riper 2004). He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as "[i]mpolite…like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand" (Van Riper 2004).
He believed in composing his photographs in his camera and not in the darkroom, showcasing this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Indeed, he emphasized that his prints were not cropped by insisting they include the first millimeter or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area resulting, after printing, in a black border around the positive image.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color. He was not interested in the process of developing or making prints, only in the photographic result:
I've never been interested in the process of photography, never, never. Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing (Jobey 1998).
Cartier-Bresson's photography took him many places on the globe: China, Mexico, Canada, the United States, India, Japan, Soviet Union, and many other countries. He became the first Western photographer to photograph "freely" in the post-war Soviet Union.
Cartier-Bresson was the recipient of many of prizes, awards, and honorary doctorates. A partial listing of his awards includes the following:
Cartier-Bresson disliked publicity. In a Charlie Rose interview in 2000, he noted that it was not necessarily that he hated to be photographed, but it was that he was embarrassed by the notion of being photographed for being famous. When he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he held a paper in front of his face to avoid being photographed (Kimmelman 2004). Thus, although he took many famous portraits, his own face was little known to the world at large (which presumably had the advantage of allowing him to work on the street in peace).
He dismissed others' applications of the term "art" to his photographs, which he thought were merely his gut reactions to moments in time that he had happened upon:
The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression…. In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif (Hall and Ulanov 1972, 473).
Cartier-Bresson spent more than three decades on assignment for Life and other journals. He traveled without bounds, documenting some of the great upheavals of the twentieth century—the Spanish civil war, the liberation of Paris in 1945, the 1968 student rebellion in Paris, the fall of the Kuomintang in China to the communists, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Berlin Wall, and the deserts of Egypt: "For the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving" (Cartier-Bresson 1999). And along the way he paused to document portraits of Sartre, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound, and Giacometti.
For Cartier-Bresson, taking a photograph was "putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis." Throughout the twentieth century, he traveled the world and brought back images that record both the internal and external aspects of the key events:
This roaming, lucid eye has captured the fascination of Africa in the 1920s, crossed the tragic fortunes of Spanish republicans, accompanied the liberation of Paris, caught a weary Gandhi just hours before his assassination, and witnessed the victory of the communists in China (Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson).
His legacy is a treasure of human activity, at its best and its worst, that will inform generations to come.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was second assistant director to Jean Renoir in 1936 for La vie est à nous and Une partie de campagne, and in 1939 for La Règle du Jeu.
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