Born August 22, 1908, in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, France; died August 3, 2004, in I'lle-sur-Sorgue, France; married Ratna Mohini (a dancer), 1937 (marriage ended); married Martine Franck (a photographer), 1970; children: one daughter. Education: Studied painting with Jean Cottenet and Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1922-23, and with Andre Lhote, Paris France, 1927-28; studied painting and literature at Cambridge University, 1928-29.
Photographer, painter, and film maker. Assistant director to Jean Renoir, France, 1936, 1939; Ce Soir, Paris, France, staff photographer, 1937-39; Magnum Photos, cofounder, 1947; director of documentary Le Retour, 1947. Exhibitions: Individual photography exhibitions: Gallery Julien Levy, New York, NY, 1932; Club Atheneo, Madrid, Spain, 1932; Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, Mexico, 1934; Documentary and Anti-Graphic, Gallery Julien Levy, New York, NY, 1935; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (retrospective), 1946, 1968; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1952; Art Institute of Chicago, 1954; Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France, 1955; Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1964; Asahi Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, 1965; En France, Grand Palais, Paris, then world tour, 1970; International Center of Photography, New York, NY, 1974, 1979; Fruit Market Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1978; Galerie Delpire, Paris, 1979; Zeit-Foto Salon, Tokyo, 1979, 1980; Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland, 1981; Colorado Photographic Arts Center, Denver, 1981; Art University, Osaka, Japan, 1991; Palazzo Sanvitale, 1992; L'Amerique, FNAC, Paris, 1992; Muséo Camon Aznar, 1992; Hamburg, Germany, 1994; I.C. P., New York, NY 1994; La Caridad, Barcelona, Spain, 1994; National Portrait Gallery, London, 1998; Hayward Gallery, London, 1998; Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, 2003; and Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum, Berlin, Germany, 2004. Exhibitions of drawings: Carlton Gallery, New York, NY, 1975; Bischofberger Gallery, Zurich, 1976; Forcalquier Galerie, Paris, 1976; Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1981; Muséo Nacional de Belas Artes, Mexico City, 1982; French Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, 1983; Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Milan, Italy, 1983; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, England, 1984; Palais Liechtenstein, Vienna, and Salzburg, Austria, 1985; French Institute, Athens, Greece, 1985; Manheim, Germany, 1986; Herstand Gallery, New York, NY, 1987; École des Beaux Arts, Paris, 1989; Printemps Ginza, Tokyo, 1989; Musée d'Art Moderne, Taiwan, 1991; Parma, Italy, 1992; Saragosse, Logrono, 1993; and La Caridad, Barcelona, 1994. Military service: Served in French Army, 1930 and 1939-43; prisoner of war in Germany, 1940-43.
Overseas Press Club of America Award, 1948, 1954, 1960, 1964; American Society of Magazine Photographers Award, 1953; Prix de la Société Français de Photographie, 1959; D.Litt., Oxford University, 1975; Culture Prize, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, 1979; Hasselblad Award, 1983; Novecento Award, 1986; inducted into International Photography Hall of Fame, 2001.
The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, text by Lincoln Kersten, Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 1947.
The Decisive Moment, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1952.
Les danses a Bali, text by Antonin Artaud, Delpire (Paris, France), 1954.
The Europeans, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1955.
People of Moscow, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1955.
China in Transition, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1956.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Fotografie, text by Anna Farova, Statni naklaatelstvi krasne (Prague, Czechoslovakia), 1958.
Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Grossman (New York, NY), 1963.
China, text by Barbara Miller, Bantam (New York, NY), 1964.
The World of HCB, Viking (New York, NY), 1968.
France, text by François Nourissier, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1970.
The Face of Asia, introduction by Robert Shapien, John Weatherhill (New York, NY), 1972.
About Russia, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1973.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aperture (New York, NY), 1976.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Ritratti, text by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues and Ferdinando Scianna, Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri (Milan, Italy), 1983.
Photoportraits, text by de Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1985.
Henri Cartier-Bresson in India, text by Yves Vequaud, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1987.
L'Autre Chine, Centre National de la Photographie (Paris, France), 1989.
Line by Line: Henri Cartier-Bresson's Drawings, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1989.
America in Passing, Bullfinch (New York, NY), 1991.
Alberto Giacometti photographie par Henri Cartier-Bresson, Franco Sciardelli (Milan, Italy), 1991.
A propos de Paris, text by Vera Feyder and Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1994.
Double Regard, text by Jean Leymarie, Le Nycatlope (Amiens, France), 1994.
Mexican Notebooks, text by Carlos Fuentes, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1994.
Europeans, text by Jean Clair, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1997.
Tete à tete, text by Ernst H. Gombrich, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1998.
The Mind's Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, Aperture (New York, NY), 1999.
Landscape Townscape, text by Erik Orsenna and Gerard Mace, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 2001.
"Once Cartier-Bresson photographed something or someone," wrote Newsweek contributor Malcolm Jones, "you might as well have retired them as subjects: best picture of a man jumping over a puddle, best portrait of Sartre, best image of a picnic." Jones could have gone on with his list to include best shot of a child carrying two huge wine bottles or best picture of proletarian dancers in Moscow or of crowds of Chinese in Shanghai attempting to buy gold. Henri Cartier-Bresson's list of instantly recognizable black-and-white photographs is a long one, yet the French artist, who died in 2004, always claimed that he was not really a photographer at all. To prove his claim, he laid down his Leica in the early 1970s, and, except for the rare assignment, turned wholly to his first artistic passions: painting and drawing.
The world did not forget his work, however. As Sadanand Menon noted in the New International at the time of Cartier-Bresson's death, "For over 45 years, from when he began to work with a camera in 1932 until he stopped taking photographs in the mid-1970s, almost nothing significant seems to have happened in the world without Cartier-Bresson's signature presence there with his battered and taped Leica M 3 camera." In those years before television and the pervasiveness of instant electronic images, the work of Cartier-Bresson and other photojournalists was greedily consumed by the public. He was in Spain for that country's civil war, in Paris for the occupation and liberation in World War II, in China for the communist revolution, in India and Pakistan at the handover from England, in the Soviet Union as it began to lift the Iron Curtain, in Hungary for the 1956 revolution, in Cuba when Castro took over, in Berlin when the Wall went up, and in Prague in 1968. His portraits of famous people define them: he took the final photos of India's Gandhi, just minutes before that leader was assassinated; his portrait of Henri Matisse with birds is iconic. These images have entered the cultural psyche; Cartier-Bresson could not retire from them.
Cartier-Bresson was considered a pioneer of photography and perhaps one of the greatest ever. Writing in Grove Art Online, Mark Haworth-Booth noted that Cartier-Bresson "not only shaped and extended the concept of photography but through it achieved a psychological penetration and formal perfection equal to other kinds of serious image-making." During his lifetime, he was the stuff of legend, and his thousands of photographs have inspired several generations of younger photographers. Jones noted in Newsweek that Cartier-Bresson "set a standard for excellence that has yet to be matched. Art photography, portraiture, photojournalism—there was nothing he could not do with a camera." For Time writer James Nachtwey, Cartier-Bresson "made us see." Nachtwey further explained: "Through his eyes we see the universal in the specific, large issues in small things, mystery in the obvious, poetry in the mundane. We see infinity in the blink of an eye." Such a legacy was no accident, for as Cartier-Bresson himself noted in his book The Decisive Moment, there is a perfect instant for each shot. This moment comes with, as he noted, "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 even its proper expression." Famed for shooting with available light and without a flash, sometimes even without using a light meter, Cartier-Bresson eschewed dark-room manipulation of his prints. Rather, the moment was caught in a frozen instant of insight by his lens, or not at all. As Vicky Hallett put it in U.S. News and World Report, "Captured through the lens of Henri Cartier-Bresson's 35-millimeter Leica, a photograph was never merely just a picture of a bicycle passing a spiral staircase, or a boy toting wine bottles down a street. It was an instant of serendipity, when subject, geometry, and motion aligned as they never would again." Cartier-Bresson's life also displayed this same serendipity.
Born on August 22, 1908, in Chanteloup, France, Henri Cartier-Bresson came from a family whose wealth, for the French, equaled that of the American Rockefellers. The family was in the thread business on both sides, but this did not stop Cartier-Bresson's uncle or his father from their own artistic pursuits, albeit with the family firm always fore-most in their thoughts. The same was expected of young Henri, but in this respect the rebellious youngster disappointed his parents. Growing up in Paris, he lost interest in his studies, failing to pass the exam for the prestigious Lycée Condorcet. Instead, he was interested in intellectual currents of the day, including the rise of surrealism, Nietzschean and Hindu philosophy, and psychoanalysis. His interest in painting began early, and by the age of twelve he was taking private lessons. One of his instructors introduced the young man to some of the artistic movers and shakers of the day, including Andre Breton, whose writings were shaping the surrealist school. Cartier-Bresson was greatly taken by this revolutionary art movement which held spontaneity as one of the highest goals and which also plumbed the unconscious mind with its strange visions. But most of all, Cartier-Bresson appreciated the social outcast role such surrealists enjoyed.
In the late 1920s Cartier-Bresson began taking lessons with cubist painter Andre Lhote, served a compulsory years in the French Army, and then went to Africa. There he landed in the French Ivory Coast and headed for the interior, intending to make his living as a big-game hunter. Instead he caught malaria; after a year tramping in Africa, Cartier-Bresson returned to Europe, where he traveled in Central European countries. The rough-and-tumble life in Africa dissuaded him from a career in painting, but seeing a photograph of native boys diving into an African lake, he realized that photography was the medium for him.
Have Leica, Will Travel
In 1932 he bought a Leica camera small enough to hold in the hand and set about to hunt images to capture with it. He would use the Leica brand for the rest of his career, learning how to use it in a matter of days and forsaking such photographic equipment as the flash or tripod. Not long after purchasing the camera, he shot one of his most famous images, Behind Gare St. Lazar, "an iconic vision of a shadowy figure leaping across a puddle," as Hallett described the photo. Here at the very outset of his career were the ingredients of what would make Cartier-Bresson famous: the perfect moment captured in mid-action, with the photographer perfectly positioned as if, as Cartier-Bresson was fond of saying, he did not take the picture, rather the picture took him. As a writer for the Economist noted, Cartier-Bresson "framed and preserved [such] less famous moments, elevating them with his genius so that they somehow seemed to capture the essence of life itself." Haworth-Booth noted of these early images that Cartier-Bresson "brought elements from Post-Impressionism and Surrealism to bear on the new technology in photographs taken first in the streets of Paris, then during his travels in Italy and Spain."
Cartier-Bresson did indeed travel in the next years, capturing street scenes in Spain, such as Madrid and Seville, both from 1933, and Callejon of the Valencia Arena, one of his most famous photos, showing a man looking through the wooden gate into a bull-fight arena. The sun is caught and reflected in one of the lenses of the man's glasses to make it appear as if the person has a hole in his head. Further travels in Mexico yielded Alicante and photos of the prostitutes if the Calle Cuahtemocztin. In 1935 Cartier-Bresson moved on to New York, where he exhibited with the American photographer Walker Evans, and where he first became interested in the possibilities of the cinema with fellow photographer Paul Strand.
Returning to France, he worked as an assistant to legendary film director Jean Renoir on films including La vie est a nous and Le regle du jeu, the latter in which the photographer also played the part of the English butler. Except for the post-war documentary Le Retour, and a couple of television documentaries in the United States, this was the extent of Cartier-Bresson's involvement in film. In 1937 he married Javanese dancer Ratna Mohini, and needing a steady income took a job as staff photographer for the leftist newspaper Ce Soir. There he met two other journalists who would prove important in his life: Robert Capa and David Seymour. He also continued his own photography of the everyday in addition to his photojournalism.
With the outbreak of World War II Cartier-Bresson joined the military, serving in a film and photography unit. Captured in 1940, he was shipped to Germany as a prisoner of war. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally escaped and made his way back to Paris in 1943, joining the Resistance there until the liberation of his country in 1945. His philosophy of catching the exact right moment is demonstrated in his 1945 picture Dessau: Exposing a Gestapo Informer. According to Haworth-Booth, "few photographs of the 20th century encompass so much of its history. The image perfectly fulfills the aesthetics of the 'decisive moment.'"
Life after the War
Following the war, Cartier-Bresson established the photographic cooperative and agency Magnum, together with Capa and Seymour. He worked on assignments from India to China and Cuba. His photos had by this time become symbols of the twentieth century, were exhibited worldwide, and filled the pages of the many of photo books he published. In 1952 he published his book on photographic theory, The Decisive Moment, but always maintained a humble opinion of himself, noting that he was an amateur when it came to photography. Cartier-Bresson was one of the first Westerners allowed in the Soviet Union after a small thaw in the Cold War; his book People of Moscow details that
trip, as does his 1956 China in Transition for that other Communist country.
By 1966 Cartier-Bresson had grown weary of his duties at Magnum and left the agency, and from 1974 on he devoted himself primarily to drawing, his first love. He explained at the time that for him photography was "instant drawing," and he preferred the real thing. Remarried in 1970, Cartier-Bresson did not leave photography totally behind: his new wife was a photographer. He spent the remaining three decades of his life anonymously, living in Paris and in the south of France, preferring not to be photographed. He drew in the Louvre, published his drawings, and had many exhibitions.
However, in the final analysis, it was photography for which he was known and for which he will always be known. He was one of the true innovators of the photographic image, a "documentary photographer with a boxer's timing and an artist's eye," as Sarah Boxer noted in the Smithsonian. The 15,000 rolls of film he shot during his career document and give image to an entire generation. For Boxer there is always an "indecisiveness" to a Cartier-Bresson photograph. This quality is, in fact, according to Boxer, "a hallmark of many classic Cartier-Bresson shots. They are beautifully, even obsessively composed, yet when it comes to pinpointing what is going on, psychologically or even factually, they seldom yield." Boxer concluded that it is exactly this uncertainty that allows many of his pictures to function as icons "of postwar anxiety."
If you enjoy the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson
If you enjoy the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, you may also want to check out the following:
The images of pioneering photojournalists George Rodger (1908--), David Seymour (1911-1956), and Robert Capa (1913-1954).
The year before his death in 2004, Cartier-Bresson was honored with a huge show at Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Describing the exhibition in Time International, Judy Fayard noted that Cartier-Bresson's "powerful black-and-white, natural-light photographs—formally rigorous, timeless and often enigmatic—adorn the BNF's vast exhibit space…. Here is the master class." At the
time of the photographer's death, no less a personage than French President Jacques Chirac joined in the mourning. As quoted in the Economist, Chirac said of his late compatriot: "With him, France loses a genius photographer, a true master, and one of the most gifted artists of his generation."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bonnefoy, Yves, Henri Cartier-Bresson Photographer, Bullfinch (New York, NY), 1979.
Boot, Chris, editor, Magnum Stories, Phaidon Press (Boston, MA), 2005.
Clair, Jean, Line by Line: The Drawings of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Thames & Hudson, 1989.
Galassi, Peter, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 1987.
Galassi, Peter, and others, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image, and the World, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 2003.
Montier, Jean-Pierre, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1994.
Artforum International, May, 2003, Miriam Rosen, "Henri Cartier-Bresson: Bibliotheque Nationale de France," p. 66.
Booklist, December 1, 1998, Ray Olson, review of Tete à tete, p. 643.
Economist, August 22, 1998, "Man of the Moment," p. 67; April 19, 2003, "Regarding Henri."
Library Journal, November 15, 1998, David Bryant, review of Tete à tete, p. 63; May 15, 2000, Douglas F. Smith, review of The Mind's Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, p. 88.
New Statesman, November 27, 1998, Charles Darwent, "Master of the Frozen Moment," p. 40.
Newsweek, June 2, 2003, Malcolm Jones, "The Man of the Moment," p. 56.
People, July 9, 2001, "Cheap Shots?," p. 115.
Print, January-February, 1999, Fred Ritchin, reviews of Europeans and Tete à tete, p. 32.
PSA Journal, January, 1992, George W. Cushman, review of America in Passing, p. 9; January, 2001, "Photography Hall of Fame Announces Latest Inductees," p. 9.
Smithsonian, November, 2003, Sarah Boxer, "Magic Moments," p. 21.
Time International, May 5, 2003, Judy Fayard, "Eternity in an Instant," p. 54.
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, http://www.henricartierbresson.org/ (November 15, 2004).
Grove Art Online, http://www.groveart.com/ (November 15, 2004), Mark Haworth-Booth, "Cartier-Bresson, Henri."
Afterimage, September-October, 2004, Bruno Chalifour, "Henri Cartier-Bresson's Last Decisive Moment," p. 2.
Art in America, October, 2004, p. 188.
Economist, August 7, 2004, "Kingdoms of the World in a Moment," p. 67.
New Internationalist, October, 2004, Sadanand Menon, "Master of the Moment," p. 34.
Newsweek, August 16, 2004, Malcolm Jones, "An Eye without Equal: Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004," p. 13.
People, August 23, 2004, p. 72.
Time, August 16, 2004, James Nachtwey, "Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004," p. 86.
U.S. News and World Report, August 16, 2004, p. 36.
Variety, August 9, 2004, p. 44.
Washington Times, August 7, 2004, J. Ross Baughman, "Cartier-Bresson: No Yes-Man, He Followed His Vision, and No Other," p. B1.*
A pioneer of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson (born 1908) is best known for his images of life in Europe during the 1930s through the 1950s. His work has long been honored with museum retrospectives, which have served to elevate his street-level imagery to the realm of artistic expression.
Cartier-Bresson was born August 22, 1908 in Chanteloup, France, a rural village not far from Paris where the rivers Seine and Marne meet. In the 1990s it would become part of the parcel of land that comprised the Euro-Disney theme park. Henri was the first of three children in the prosperous Cartier-Bresson household, a home situated on Paris's rue de Lisbonne. His father's family had been in the thread manufacturing business since 1789, but both Cartier-Bresson's great-grandfather and a contemporary uncle were talented artists; even his business-minded father liked to sketch. The family of Cartier-Bresson's mother hailed from Normandy, and they, too, possessed a generations-old cotton-manufacturing firm. As the eldest son of the new generation, Cartier-Bresson was naturally expected to direct his education and training toward business in preparation for one day taking on a management role.
A Subversive Student
As a teen, Cartier-Bresson grew into a disaffected bookworm and indifferent student, far more interested in banned literature than mathematics. He attended a Catholic academy in Paris, the Ecole Fenelon, and then went on to the Lycee Condorcet. Early on, he was deeply interested in intellectual currents that were, at the time, very much at odds with the standard Catholic-centered curriculum-psychoanalysis, Nietzschean philosophy, and even Hindu beliefs. One day, a teacher caught him reading the poet Arthur Rimbaud, but Cartier-Bresson was fortunate that the master had been friends with the Paris Symbolist poets in his student days; instead of punishing him, the teacher allowed Cartier-Bresson to read from his own collection of seditious titles in his office after school.
Cartier-Bresson was also very much lured by the visual arts, and visits to the studio of his painter uncle made lasting sensory impressions. He began painting himself around the age of 12. At first, he studied under a cohort of his uncle's named Jean Cottenet, and later studied privately with a "society" painter, Jacques-Emile Blanche, who had been the model for a character in one of Marcel Proust's novels. Expected to enter business school after finishing at the Lycee Condorcet, Cartier-Bresson instead failed the exam three times. By this point Blanche had introduced him to a number of notable names in Parisian artistic circles, and the teen was becoming deeply interested in Surrealism. Arising around 1924, with the writings of Andre Breton, this Paris-centered literary and artistic movement held that the subconscious, as explained by Sigmund Freud, could be unlocked. Surrealist artistic processes centered around "spontaneous" creative expression, such as automatic writing; its adherents also considered themselves willing outcasts from conventional society.
Rejected Bourgeois Life
By 1925, Cartier-Bresson had finished the Lycee and won his parents' permission to study privately with Andre Lhote, a Cubist painter of admirable regard. After spending an extended period visiting a student cousin in England, he spent a compulsory year in the military around 1929, and was stationed at the airfield of Le Bourget, near Paris. His first experiences with a camera occurred with a Brownie he bought around this time. Later in 1930, deeply influenced by Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, he boarded a ship headed for Africa. He disembarked at a French Ivory Coast village, and later moved inland to eke out a living by hunting with a rifle at night with a lamp mounted on his head. He fell into a coma after becoming ill with blackwater fever, and was forced to return to France.
The experience in Africa had erased from Cartier-Bresson any desire to earn his living by standing at an easel all day. In 1931, he embarked upon a long trip across Germany, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary with a writer friend. Back in France in 1932, he bought a Leica camera in Marseilles that he would use for the remainder of his career. From there he went on to other parts of France, and then Spain and Italy, and began photographing images that were revolutionary at the time for their portrayal of Europe's urban underclass and rural poor. It was at this point, wrote Peter Pollack in The Picture History of Photography, that Cartier-Bresson "took his first unforgettable picture: hilarious children chasing a wildly laughing, crippled child on crutches playing in the ruins of a stucco building in Seville."
Cartier-Bresson's work was revolutionary because he used a small, portable camera, which allowed him to record a "decisive moment" in time. That spontaneity-and the unrehearsed, unstaged glimpse into human nature that it captured-would become the distinctive element common to most of his images. The first exhibition of his photographs was held in 1933 at the Atheneo Club in Madrid. Later that same year his first American show took place at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. In 1934, he left for a long sojourn in Mexico, after an invitation from the government to participate in a photography project. Though the funding fell through, he stayed a year, living in a rather squalid area of Mexico City. He shared a flat with American poet, Langston Hughes, and several others.
Around 1935, Cartier-Bresson arrived in New York City for an extended stay. He exhibited with Walker Evans at Julien Levy, and found a vast trove of images for his lens across the city's crowded and colorful boroughs. Cartier-Bresson began dabbling in the cinematic arts with a fellow photographer, Paul Strand. He became further involved in film making in 1936, after returning to France. Cartier-Bresson served as second assistant director for a few films by the esteemed French director Jean Renoir. In 1937, he received a commission to make a documentary about a medical relief program providing aid to Loyalist fighters wounded in the Spanish Civil War.
Cartier-Bresson, now in his late 20s, was not an avowed communist, but had developed decidedly leftist sympathies nonetheless. When he married a dancer from Java, Ratna Mohini, in 1937, he needed a steady income, and thus found a job as a staff photographer for France's Communist daily, Ce Soir. In May of that year he was sent to cover the coronation of England's King George VI, and turned his camera toward the crowd instead, capturing many memorable images of working-class Britons gathered for the day's festivities. At Ce Soir he became friends with two other photojournalists, Robert Capa and David Seymour (known as "Chim"). The three often submitted their leftover work to an agency, Alliance Photo, and many of the images were published in Vu, the French version of the popular American photo-newsweekly, Life.
Three Years as Prisoner
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Cartier-Bresson enlisted in the French army and was made a corporal in its film and photo unit. On the same June 1940 day that the French government capitulated to Nazi Germany and signed an armistice, the unit was captured in the Vosges Mountains and Cartier-Bresson was transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Wuerttemberg. He made two unsuccessful attempts to escape in his thirty-five months of captivity, and finally succeeded on his third try. Sneaking back into a France still under German occupation, he obtained false identity papers and managed to find work as a commercial photographer, again in Paris. He was also active in an underground group that aided escaped POWs like himself, and organized secret photography units that documented the German occupation.
These resistance activities brought Cartier-Bresson to the attention of American military authorities and, in 1945, at the war's end, he was hired by the U.S. Office of War Information to make La Retour, a film about French citizens returning from prisoner-of-war and deportation camps. In 1947, he traveled to the U.S. when its American debut was planned as part of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective on his career. During this stay he was also able to fulfill a longtime ambition to travel across America.
Pioneer of Photojournalism
Back in France in 1947, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, and Seymour founded Magnum Photo, a cooperative agency of photojournalists owned and run by the members themselves. "After the war, when Chim, Capa, and I met up again, someone pointed out that we should form an association," Cartier-Bresson recalled in an interview with Michel Nuridsany in the New York Review of Books. "… Chim and I would say to each other: 'That Capa's such a go-getter; he lives in fancy hotels, throws parties. We'll never be able to keep up.' It was very worrying. And then we realized that, while playing gin rummy with magazine owners, he would find us jobs. From that point on we shared all our money equally." Even the proceeds from Cartier-Bresson's first book, Images a la Sauvette (published in English as The Decisive Moment), which appeared in 1952, were shared.
Always modest about his achievements, Cartier-Bresson once said of his career as a photographer, "Not only am I an amateur; even worse, I am a dilettante," reported Roger Therond in Contemporary Photographers. Still, the English title of his first book reflects the essence of his greater contribution to photography: Cartier-Bresson merged the spontaneity provided by the miniature camera with the intuitive inspiration heralded by Surrealism. With his camera as a constant companion, he was able to capture the street scenes that exemplified the human-interest angle behind photojournalism itself. Surrealism, wrote Peter Galassi in Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, considered "the street as an arena of adventure and fantasy only thinly disguised by the veneer of daily routine … If Surrealism aimed to eliminate the distinction between art and life, no one achieved this goal more thoroughly than Cartier-Bresson in the early thirties. The tools of his art-a few rolls of film, the small camera held in the hand-required no distinction between living and working," Galassi wrote. "There was no studio, no need to separate art from the rest of experience."
First Western Photographer in Soviet Russia
Cartier-Bresson's leftist sympathies helped secure a visa to enter and photograph China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. At the time, both were totalitarian Communist nations more or less closed to Western visitors, and any images published in the West were heavily censored and aimed at depicting only the positive attributes of their ideology. Cartier-Bresson's book China in Transition was published in English translation in 1956, a year after Moscow/ The People. The publication of other notable volumes of his work-Les Europeens (1955), The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1968), and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographer (1979) among many others-were tied to his conviction that his work should reach the widest possible number of viewers, instead of being restricted to the gallery-museum circuit of the "fine arts."
Cartier-Bresson has been feted with numerous international exhibitions of his work over the length of his career, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1952 and Paris's Musee d'Art Moderne in 1981. In 1967, he became the first photographer in the history of the Louvre to have a second solo show. In 1999, Denmark's Louisiana Museum staged a retrospective featuring 185 of his photographs. The show, titled "Europeans," was divided-according to Cartier-Bresson's wishes-by country.
Surprisingly, in 1972 the famed photographer ceased working in this medium and began painting again. Famously reclusive, Cartier-Bresson lives in Paris in an apartment near the Louvre. He does return to photography for the occasional portrait, however. "That I enjoy quite a bit," Cartier-Bresson told Nuridsany in the New York Review of Books. "Or landscapes. But on the street, no. And I don't miss it, either. I tell myself simply, in passing, well, well, look at that, that would have made a photo. That's all."
Contemporary Photographers, edited by Colin Naylor, St. James Press, 1988.
Galassi, Peter, Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, Museum of Modern Art, 1987.
Photography: Essays and Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
Pollack, Peter, The Picture History of Photography, Abrams, 1969.
New York Review of Books, March 2, 1995. □
Born August 22, 1908, in Chanteloup, France; died August 3, 2004, in Lisle-sur-la-Sorgue, France. Photographer. French visionary Henri Cartier-Bresson gave the world some of the most indelible images of twentieth-century life. A pioneering photojournalist whose career emerged somewhat accidentally after a failed attempt at painting, Cartier-Bresson "insisted that photography was art as well as record," noted Val Williams in London's Independent, "and that neither was more important than the other. He knew the value of photography as evidence and education, that it was a way of telling us both about ourselves and about societies with which we are unfamiliar."
Born in Paris in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a well-to-do but notoriously frugal household headed by a father who ran the family's successful textile business. After a strict Roman Catholic education, he rebelled against the bourgeois conventions of his upbringing, and duly took up the study of painting in Paris. There, in the late 1920s, he fell into Surrealist circles, and cultivated friendships with a number of cutting-edge artists and writers of the era. At England's Cambridge University, he took courses in literature and art, and did a tour of duty in the French Army in the early 1930s. Upon his discharge, he headed to Africa to hunt big game. There, he contracted a deadly fever, and sent his family a postcard with instructions for his funeral. "Your grandfather finds all that too expensive," was the reply, according to the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman. "It would be preferable that you return first."
Cartier-Bresson made it back to France, and recuperated in the seaport city of Marseilles. There, he bought a small Leica, one of the first easily portable 35-millimeter cameras, and took his first photographs. From his Surrealist ties, he had come to understand the importance of spontaneity in art, and so he would wander the sometimes-dingy streets of Marseilles until he chanced upon the perfect scene to capture. His assured eye produced stunning images, and his work quickly gained renown across Europe thanks to gallery exhibitions. He also worked for Ce Soir, the French Communist newspaper. When World War II erupted, he served in a film unit of the French Army, but in June of 1940 was taken prisoner. Held for nearly three years, he escaped on his third attempt and joined the French Resistance.
After documenting the end of war in some famously compelling images, Cartier-Bresson went on to become one of the founders of the Magnum photo agency in 1947. Its photographers owned the rights to their photos, which was a novel idea at the time. Cartier-Bresson did not believe that a photograph should ever be cropped and asserted that any editing should be done just before, or as, the image was snapped.
Though his eye for composition was extraordinary, Cartier-Bresson preferred to describe the medium as the moment when the eye, the head, and the heart aligned. He traveled the world photographing events and their participants, or just ordinary individuals. Other photographers marveled at what seemed to be his extraordinary luck in getting a perfect, emotionally incisive shot, and Cartier-Bresson called this "the decisive moment," which was also the English-language title of his book, Images a la Sauvette. Once, his luck was tragic: he photographed Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi just 15 minutes before he was assassinated. He was granted a rare photographer's visa to visit the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and later photographed Cuba for a Life magazine photo essay.
Cartier-Bresson enjoyed a lengthy list of honors and retrospectives during his lifetime, but he left Magnum in 1966, and took up drawing again in his senior years. With his wife, the photographer Martine Franck, he established a foundation in Paris bearing his name, which opened in 2003. The New York Times' Kimmelman called some of his early images "simply among the best works of 20th-century art," while Peter Conrad's tribute in the London Observer contained a meditation on the author's favorite Cartier-Bresson photograph—of a little boy returning from a Paris market. "He carries two bottles of wine, cradling them as if they were his fragile twin siblings," Conrad wrote. "He beams with delight, pleased to be charged with this delicate responsibility, even more pleased to be, while the photographer is looking at him, the centre of the world."
Cartier-Bresson's first marriage, in 1937 to a Javanese dancer named Ratna Mohini, ended after 30 years. He died on August 3, 2004, at his home in Lisle-sur-la-Sorgue, in southwest France. He is survived by his wife, Martine, and their daughter, Melanie. He was 95 years old, and had retained his characteristic wit and lively spirit until the end of his life. He often joked that he had no imagination, which was why he had failed at painting and abandoned a brief fling with filmmaking in the 1930s. Taking photographs, he countered, was much easier, and he was enchanted by the Buddhist teachings he read, one of which seemed to be the driving force behind the beauty and humanity of his images. It was the tenet that "life changes every minute," he once said, according to Andrew Robinson of the Guardian, and "the world is born and dies every minute."
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/3536742.stm (May 3, 2005).
Guardian (London), August 5, 2004, p. 27.
Independent (London), August 5, 2004, p. 34.
New York Observer, August 16, 2004, p. 1.
New York Times, August 5, 2004, p. A1.
Observer (London), August 8, 2004, p. 7.