Henri Cartier-Bresson




Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), arguably the most significant photographer of the twentieth-century, was one of the co-founders of Magnum Photos in 1947 and champion of the “decisive moment”. He brought a new aesthetic and practice to photography, initiated modern photojournalism, and influenced countless followers.

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Early Career

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on 22 August 1908, the eldest of five children born to a wealthy textile manufacturer and his wife, the scion of a Normandy landowning family. Brought up in a bourgeois suburb of Paris, Cartier-Bresson was educated at the École Fénelon, and then at the Lhote Academy, a studio run by the surrealist painter, André Lhote.

An underlying dissatisfaction with painting, and a year at Cambridge University from 1928-29, disrupted Cartier-Bresson’s development as a painter, and he found himself increasingly drawn to the more immediate, and fashionable, medium of photography as a way of expressing his developing world-view.

As he was independently wealthy, living off an allowance from his father, Cartier-Bresson did not need to earn money. This meant that he was free to experiment and, after buying a Leica 35mm camera in 1932, he embarked on various travels to explore the potential of photography. Between 1932 and 1935 he visited Italy, Spain, Morocco, and Mexico, gradually developing his love, and genius, for the medium.

The Decisive Moment

In 1952 Cartier-Bresson published The Decisive Moment, a collection of the images taken in the first decades of his career, in which he elaborated his approach to photography. He wrote that a photograph should be “the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms.” However, Cartier-Bresson did not “point and shoot” to achieve this effect. He often framed a picture in the viewfinder of his Leica, and then waited for the perfect event to occur, normally a person passing through the scene. Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932, is perhaps the perfect example of this practice, and has subsequently became Cartier-Bresson’s most celebrated picture and is a triumph of technique. Only with the fast shutter-speed of the Leica could Cartier-Bresson freeze the movement of the man so perfectly, creating the tension between the glassy surface of the water and the splash that the man would create.

Magnum Photos

In 1947 Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos, the famous co-operative photography agency, with fellow photographers Robert Capa, David Chim’ Seymour, and George Rodger. He and his co-founders recognised that photography had recently become incredibly powerful as a communication tool, and their agency placed them at the vanguard of the industry. Cartier-Bresson’s specific remit was to cover India and China, but in fact he travelled widely for the next twenty years, also taking assignments in the USA, France, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Swiftly becoming one of the world’s most sought-after photojournalists, Cartier-Bresson covered many of the great events and issue of the period.

One of his favourite assignments was his trip to Moscow in 1954. He was the first foreign professional photographer to be allowed into the USSR since the death of Stalin in 1953. With the help of a local interpreter Cartier-Bresson set about photographing daily life in his usual style, except that he was restricted from photographing military buildings, bridges and other various “sensitive” subjects. This trip resulted in a remarkable series of photographs that was published in Life magazine in 1955. The pictures were widely disseminated across the Western world, most of which had little idea about the realities of daily life in the USSR.

Aside from his influential book The Decisive Moment (Images à La Sauvette), Cartier-Bresson published over thirty further publications, the last being Landscape Townscape, published in 2001. In 1968, he retired from professional photography, returning to his first love, drawing, for the remainder of his life. Henri Cartier-Bresson died at his home in Provence on 3 August 2004, a few weeks short of his 96th birthday.

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