Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson



Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in Chanteloup, France. Throughout his childhood, Cartier-Bresson was interested in the arts. He was influenced by his father, a respected and wealthy textile merchant and his uncle, an accomplished painter. As a young boy Cartier-Bresson read the literature of the day by authors such as Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, Proust, and Joyce. In addition to literature, he intensely studied painting.

By 1927 he painted under Andre Lhote. Lhote was a conservative; Cartier-Bresson had always been restless and conservatism did not suit him. It was also a time when many artists were experimenting to further the theory of art. He befriended Rene Crevel and soon began to practice surrealism. I was marked, not by surrealist painting, but by the conceptions of Breton, which satisfied me a great deal: the role of spontaneous expression and of intuition and, above all, the attitude of revolt. In 1928 Cartier-Bresson attended Cambridge University, England, where he studied literature and painting. It was here that he was introduced to film and photography.

By 1929 he began to take photography seriously. In 1931, Cartier-Bresson discovered the hand-held Leica camera and was practically consumed by the new art form. He made the conscious decision to pursue photography as a career. I kept walking the streets, high-strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera. Manufactured’ or staged photography does not concern me. And if I make a judgement it can only be on a psychological or sociological level. There are those who take photographs arranged beforehand and those who go out and discover the image and seize it. For me the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant, which in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. Thus evolved a theory, not entirely his, but definitely practiced by Cartier-Bresson and forever associated with his name, the decisive moment. The original phrase came from Cardinal de Retz who stated everything in the world has its decisive moment. Roaming the streets, Cartier-Bresson would photograph moments most eyes would surpass for everyday life, but to him these were the true moments of human existence.


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With his newfound interest, he began traveling the world. Africa, Eastern Europe and Mexico were the places where one of the twentieth centuries’ most traveled photographers journeyed. The majority of his work was commissioned and sent to magazines for publication, but Cartier-Bresson was dedicated to the art of photography and was also exhibited in several galleries, the first being the Julian Levy Gallery in New York. Before the Second World War, he worked on films with Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, and Andre Zvoboda. He also worked on documentary films in Spain. With the onset of war, Cartier-Bresson entered the French military as a photographer.

Captured in Germany in 1937, three attempts and three years later, he escaped. This experience colored a new perception on life, a new appreciation of people. Thus, he began a new photographic series of portraiture. Over the years, Cartier-Bresson’s portraiture has been re-examined and is now considered one of his most successful portfolios. Tete a Tete is a publication of Cartier-Bresson’s portraiture. If, in making a portrait, you hope to grasp the interior silence of a willing victim, it’s very difficult, but you must somehow position the camera between his shirt and his skin. Success in portraiture is often measured by how well the photographer captures the spirit of the sitter, and it came naturally for Cartier-Bresson.

After the war, he joined the NMPGD, the French Underground Photographers’ Association, and continued to submit works to magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vu. Cartier-Bresson had remained true to the surrealist thought until 1947, then influenced by Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson changed his overall vision and approach to photojournalism. This was not such a dramatic departure from the first 15 years of photographic work, which had been documenting moments in everyday life. The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye, and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event, which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions. Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search for the solution to the problems it poses—for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving.

Photojournalism, at its peak during the early- to-mid 1900s posed problems of its own. The demand by magazines for photographers to record the events and people of the world grew tremendously at the turn of the century. It became big business, and with big business came complications for photographers. Most magazines, either through commissions or freelance, required the photographer to give up the rights to their images submitted. In response, with Capa, Bill Vandivert, George Rodger and David Seymour “Chim”, Cartier-Bresson became one of the founding members of Magnum. It was and still is an organization that maintains the rights of photographers who submit images to magazines. The organization currently has four offices: London, New York, Paris, Tokyo. It consists of nearly 60 photographers who work with publications around the world. From that point on, Cartier-Bresson continued his photography reportage with travels to China, Indonesia, India, Burma, Pakistan, the USSR, Cuba, and the US. By the 1970s, he began to divert his attention to painting. During these later years, residing in France, he has authored or has been the subject of several books, The Mind’s Eye, Portfolio, Tete a Tete, Mexican Notebooks, Masters of Photography, A Propos de Paris, and many more. Henri Cartier-Bresson has received numerous exhibitions, awards, prizes and honorary doctorates for his original vision in photography. In a world that is buckling under the weight of profit-making, that is overrun by the destructive sirens of Techno-science and the power-hunger of globalization—that new brand of slavery—beyond all that, Friendship exists, Love exists.

By Lori Oden For IPHF