Cartier-Bresson and Sartre

Henri Cartier-Bresson and the preeminent existentialist philosopher and novelist, Jean Paul Sartre, overlapped in their Marxist, humanist outlooks. Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the ‘decisive moment’ aligned with the centrality of individual experience to Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre wrote a preface to Cartier-Bresson’s volume of photographs, From One China to the Other (1954). In 1946, by photographing the philosopher whilst standing on the Pont des Arts with the Institut de France in the background, the photographer ensures that he appears wise and thoughtful. In the immediate post-war years Cartier-Bresson photographed a huge array of literary and artistic celebrities: Edith Piaf, Jean Paulhan, Hélène Lazareff, Christian Dior, Jean Eiffel, Léonor Fini, Paul Éluard, Édouard Pignon, André Lhote, Pablo Picasso, Albert Camus and many others. However, he hated the idea of elitism and celebrity. When he found a list in his archives of a series of well-known portraits that his archivists had compiled he wrote a note in the margin saying “this list is an absurdity. Draw up a list only of good portraits.”

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