Cartier-Bresson's work spanned photographic genres for the entirety of his long career. He is regarded as a pioneer of candid and street photography but he is also well-known for having produced some of the most compelling photographic portraits of notables ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre and Leonard Bernstein to Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X. An early user of 35mm film, Cartier-Bresson preferred never to use the darkroom to adjust his photographs, a choice that enhanced the spontaneity of his images and emphasized what he called "the decisive moment." No single photographer is more closely linked to the development of modern photojournalism than is Cartier-Bresson, whose itinerant nature brought him to some of the most momentous events and sites in modern history - from the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation to the assassination of Mahatma Ghandi.
Born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France in 1908 to a wealthy textile merchant, Henri Cartier-Bresson was the eldest of five children. His mother, Marthe, exposed him to the arts including taking him on trips to the Louvre in Paris, attending chamber music concerts, and regularly reading him poetry. His father, Andre, was a severe man, consumed with the role of paternal duty and dedicated to his successful textile business. In response to his father's defection to the world of business, Henri vowed at an early age never to follow in his father's footsteps.
Painting captured the interest of Cartier-Bresson when he was just five years old. His uncle, Louis, was an accomplished painter and winner of the Prix de Rome in 1910. The two spent many hours in Louis's studio together and Henri began referring to his uncle as his "mythical father." Cartier-Bresson's apprenticeship in his uncle's studio ended abruptly and tragically when Louis was killed in the Great War; the young Cartier-Bresson also lost his two brothers to that war.
Henri continued painting on his own and, between painting and reading, found a means of escape from the turmoil of the real world. Eventually, his parents hired two art tutors to instruct him while he attended Catholic school. Although photography was not yet of particular interest to Cartier-Bresson at that time, he watched several films, including seminal ones by D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim, which would prove to be critical sources of inspiration when he began producing his own films following WWII.
Despite his father's aspirations for his son to attend the most prestigious French business school, Cartier-Bresson failed the baccalaureate entrance exam three times. Instead, in 1926 he left home to study at the private art academy of the French Cubist sculptor and painter, Andre Lhote, in Montparnasse. Lhote advocated combining the aesthetic of the Cubists with the technical conventions of French neoclassical painters like Poussin and David, which he thought would link modernism to tradition. Lhote and his students made frequent trips to the Louvre to study the works of old masters and the works of Renaissance notables like Jan van Eyck and Piero della Francesca impressed the budding young painter. Those experiences contrasted with the students' visits to galleries around Paris where they absorbed contemporary art. Combining the best of the old and the new, Lhote became for Cartier-Bresson a teacher of "photography without a camera". He also studied portrait painting for a short time with Jacques-Emile Blanche, the society portraitist.
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Cartier-Bresson spent a year - from 1928 to 1929 - studying art and literature and also English at Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge in England. In 1930, he was forced to leave his studies when he was conscripted into the French army and station at Le Bourget just outside of Paris. Back in France, he was introduced to important contacts in French art circles, including Surrealist writer, Rene Crevel, by his former art tutor. The two hit it off and Crevel and Cartier-Bresson soon frequented the buzzing Parisian café scene and reveled in the exciting nightlife of the capital city with other Surrealists. Henri was attracted to Crevel's well-known nihilism, his air of rebellion, and his dedication to the philosophy outlined in the Surrealist manifesto. Surrealism's spontaneous expression and reliance on intuition enticed Cartier-Bresson to add such ideas to his own experiments. Through Crevel, Cartier-Bresson met Surrealism founder, André Breton, as well as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. During that period, Cartier-Bresson had also become intrigued with contemporary philosophy and literature and read avidly works by thinkers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Proust, Mallarme, Freud, Marx, and Engels.
Cartier-Bresson was certainly intrigued by Surrealism, and the ideas and personalities in the movement intrigued him greatly. But ultimately, he decided to follow colleagues Robert Capa's advice: "Watch out for labels. They're reassuring but somebody's going to stick one on you that you'll never get rid of - 'the little surrealist photographer.' You'll be lost - you'll get precious and mannered. Take instead the label of 'photojournalist' and keep the other thing for yourself, in your heart of hearts."
In 1931, after fulfilling his military obligations, during which time he had read Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness (1899), Cartier-Bresson traveled to the Cote d'Ivoire in French colonial Africa with the notion of escaping the strictures of city life and having an adventure. He survived by hunting, shooting game and then selling the meat to villagers. Having acquired a camera before leaving for Africa, Cartier-Bresson took photographs with his second-hand Krauss camera. His year-long adventure ended when Henri contracted blackwater fever, a parasitical disease that nearly killed him. His condition worsened to the extent that he sent a postcard to this family outlining his last wishes.
Cartier-Bresson returned to France in 1931, recuperating first in Marseille. By chance, he saw the photograph Three Boys at Lake Tanganiyka (c. 1929) by the Hungarian photographer, Martin Munkacsi, of three boys running naked into waves on an African beach. The image of their silhouetted bodies captured a moment in time so strikingly that Henri was inspired to pursue photography with a seriousness that had been absent in his previous dabbling with the medium. He recalled the experience, saying, "I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influenced me. There is such intensity in this image, such spontaneity, such joie de vivre, such 'miraculousness', that even today it still bowls me over."
A year later Cartier-Bresson bought his first Leica camera. The camera was new to the market and it helped facilitate the impromptu nature of his approach to photography with its small size and portability, allowing him to act quickly, to capture candid images of his subjects without being overly intrusive. From 1932 through 1933, he travelled across Europe and Africa with his camera in the company of friends and then wandered in Mexico for much of 1934. While a good number of the photographs he produced during that three-year period were commissioned for publications, Cartier-Bresson had also begun compiling a portfolio for exhibition.
Cartier-Bresson briefly set aside photography to become a film director. Just before WWII, he travelled to New York where he spent a year learning the principles of montage from the modernist photographer Paul Strand and had his first photography exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1935. He returned to Paris in 1936 determined to capture Europe's worsening political climate in moving images. After GW Pabst and Luis Bunuel turned down his offers of help, he joined Jean Renoir to work on a propaganda film for the communist party. The film, La vie est à nous (Life is Ours) (1936), attacked the leading families who controlled France. A subsequent Renoir film, La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) (1939), in which Cartier-Bresson played an English butler, now a classic, was a satirical comedy examining the relationships between aristocrats and their servants. Cartier-Bresson subsequently made three documentaries in support of Republican Spain. In 1937, he returned to photography when he joined the staff of the newly founded communist newspaper, Ce Soir, alongside Robert Capa and David "Chim" Seymour.
With the onset of WWII, Cartier-Bresson joined the French military as a photographer. That same year, he was taken prisoner and sent to a German labor camp. After spending a terrible three years in the camp, he escaped on his third attempt. He returned to the farm in Vosges where he had previously buried his Leica, dug up the camera, and then remained there until the end of the war. At the farm he met his first wife, Ratna Mohini; he also continued underground resistance activities with the National Movement of War Prisoners and Deportees (MNPGD) with the farm as his home base. Once the announcement came over the radio that the Allied forces had landed in Normandy, he traveled with Capa to Paris to cover the city's liberation from German occupation. Capa had taken some of the most emblematic photographs of the Allied invasion on D-Day on Omaha Beach and, perhaps, of World War II overall that are titled The Magnificent Eleven. In fact, the two men were responsible for providing some of the most memorable images of the death throes of the devastating war. Cartier-Bresson later created a film on the return of French prisoners of war entitled, Le Retour (1946). Between them, Cartier-Bresson and Capa defined wartime photojournalism.
In 1947, Cartier-Bresson co-founded Magnum Photos along with fellow photographers Capa, Seymour, and George Rodgers. The agency helped protect the interests of the photographers, the rightful owners of their negatives and all reproduction rights. The founding members of Magnum divided and travelled the world with Cartier-Bresson documenting Asia. No longer working under contracts for magazines, Cartier-Bresson had to seek out work on his own. His political involvement was firmly to the left and he was dedicated to journalistic photography, particularly in the interest of the communist press. His work while in Asia included documentation of the communist transition in China, the partition of Pakistan, and Mahatma Gandhi's death. By 1950, he had been awarded the US Camera Prize for best reportage of the year for his coverage of Gandhi and another award from the prestigious Overseas Press Club for his pictures taken in Nanking and Shanghai.
One of the most defining events of his career was the publication a book of his own work called The Decisive Moment, in 1952. The book's cover was designed by his friend, Henri Matisse, and the 126 photos it featured drew from his growing portfolio of images from across the world. He explained how he had arrived at the title by quoting seventeenth-century cleric and political agitator, 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"). Far more than merely the title of his first major publication, the phrase became his aesthetic raison d'être. He explained, "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 which give that event its proper expression."
The Decisive Moment book was the culmination of Cartier-Bresson's efforts with his friend E. Teriade. Teriade was a successful fine art book publisher that had previously put together impressive books for Giacometti, Picasso, Matisse, and others. By working together, Teriade elevated Cartier-Bresson's photographs from photojournalism to art, potentially from low to high art. Teriade planned to publish multiple books with Cartier-Bresson and other important photographers - but the second world war only allowed him to publish one other book with Cartier-Bresson: The Europeans (1955).
By the time of his first exhibition in France in 1955, held at the Pavillion de Marsan in the prestigious Louvre Museum in Paris, Cartier-Bresson had acquired international acclaim, not the least for his candid portraits of notables such as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and many others. His second wife later recalled that his popularity as a portraitist and ability to get the most out of each situation was the key to his success. He never refused being introduced to anyone, he always had sensitivity to whoever he spoke with (whether a ruler or a pauper), and ultimately he was very connected to many important people; all these attributes allowed him access to photos that no other photographer could match. For the next 10 years he continued to travel the world, often in the context of war or its terrible aftermath, from Mexico, the U.S., China, Japan, India, and the Soviet Union. In addition, he had the unique distinction of being the first Western photographer to take photographs in the Cold War-era Soviet Union.
In 1966, Cartier-Bresson left Magnum and retired from photography. In 1970, he divorced his longtime wife to marry fellow photographer, Martine Frank. The couple had a daughter named Melanie. Henri no longer traveled the globe, but instead devoted himself to being a father.
In the 1970s, Cartier-Bresson retired from photography and even stopped taking photos altogether aside from producing a private portrait now and then. In fact, he stopped carrying around his camera, which had been like an extension of his body for much of his adult life; he kept the camera in a safe where it remained, little used, in the last years of his life.
He also began painting again, applying an aesthetic honed over a lifetime of producing primarily photographs. Towards the end of his life, Cartier-Bresson even developed a reluctance to even discuss photography, the medium that had been his life's work. Always one to shy away from being photographed himself, Henri also shunned interviews and wished to have no part in being a curator, archivist, or even a commentator on his own photography. In 2003, he created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation with his wife and daughter. On August 3, 2004, he died in Cereste, France.
Nothing captures the essence of Cartier-Bresson's work more precisely than the concept of "the decisive moment." Since its invention, the potential of photography had been debated and the divide between "art" and "documentary" photography seemed intractable. Combining his affinity for the disciplined painting of the great masters with his interest in Surrealism and modern philosophy plus his thirst for adventure and desire to be in the thick of current events. Cartier-Bresson used photography to create visual documents of remarkable spontaneity. As he refused to alter his images after snapping a photo, including foregoing cropping , while often artfully framed, seem to bring together the two possibilities of photography: art and visual documentation.
One of the versatile photographer's greatest achievements was detaching himself from his reliance on magazines for commissions, which could be restrictive from a professional perspective. With commissions, artistic license was often quite constrained and subject matter was dictated by the nature of a given commission. Co-founding Magnum allowed him to continue his efforts at photojournalism but choosing his own subjects instead of accepting assignments; at the same time, he was then free to pursue photography for its artistic possibilities. Cartier-Bresson, who considered himself a photojournalist and is regarded as one of the true pioneers of street photography, was capable of producing acutely modern compositions. The variety in his oeuvre is vast; his career was in some ways one long experiment that inspired photographers as diverse as Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander.
“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”
There’s a short essay called “A Man Begging In The Métro” written by John Berger which talks about an encounter the author once had with Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The two talk about the nature of photography and the legendary French photographer reveals some very interesting details about his process of taking pictures.
The “decisive moment” in photography
Henri Cartier-Bresson gives an explanation of what he meant by the “decisive moment in photography”, a term which he coined referring to the right moment to take a photograph.
According to Henri Cartier-Bresson “photography is just pressing down the shutter button at the right time”. Simple and easy. And it seems like an appropriate definition. After all who wants to challenge the famous photographer who many critics consider to be the eye of the 20th century?
Nevertheless there is of course a little bit more than that to photography than expressed in Henri Cartier-Bresson rather simple description. At least one could add that there are a few things one could do in order to force the decisive moment in photography to come.
What did Henri Cartier-Bresson mean when he talked about the decisive moment?
No doubt about it that many great photographs are the product of spontaneous and unplanned situations unfolding in front of the lens of a photographer. Then it’s often a matter of luck and quick hands to capture these special moments in the wink of an eye before they have passed – especially in documentary and street photography. On the other hand there are certain preparations you can make (or maybe even should make) that give you a certain control over a seemingly fleeting moment and increase the chances of capturing great moments thus getting the desired result.
One thing you can always do is check out locations beforehand. If you pass by a special place that you think might be a great place to take photograph for instance, you can make yourself familiar with it already thinking about possible shots. In other words you can cast and set the stage before the real action is actually going to happen. There are dozens of possibilities to manipulate the decisive moment, if you want.
You can check the lighting, for example. Does the sunlight get reflected, maybe by a building or a wall? How does the light change during different times of the day? Which angle would be appropriate? There are so many compositional elements that you can plan before taking the actual shot. Light, colors, shapes, forms, compositional lines and so on.
There’s an extraordinary photography film about Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Impassioned Eye”, which for me is one of the best photography movies ever made.
To give you a more precise idea of what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images below. Both photographs were taken in a place that already provided an interesting setting and a natural frame. In the first image its the geometry of stairs, asphalt and course of the street. In the second one the hole in the wall makes for a perfect frame to fit in the action – or subjects in this case. Having found such perfect settings all the photographer has to do is to wait and see.
Like a spider in the net. In the case if the Cartier-Bresson images eventually a man on a bicycle came by and a group of children filled the natural frame.
Examples of the decisive moment in images from Henri Cartier-Bresson
So after all not everything depends exclusively on being in the right place at the right time, or decisive moment as Henri Cartier-Bresson taught us. Besides the previous planning I just discussed, it’s certainly true that the photographer’s instinct also plays an important role.
You can actually train your gaze in order to be able to anticipate the decisive moment – on a subconscious level. Thus the more you shoot, the more likely it is that you develop these skills that over time help to educate your eye. All your experience eventually come into play when taking a photograph. Henri Cartier-Bresson put it that way in the interview with John Berger:
“Nothing gets ever lost. All that one has seen is always going to be present.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson stresses the importance of discipline and the continuous training of the eye. Every experience and every image taken helps to reinforce this long and never-ending process of developing an own and unique photographic language. For that you don’t even have to carry your camera around with you all the time.
A very effective way to train your eye is to constantly visualize how things around you would look like as a photograph. Kind of like looking through the viewfinder without pressing the shutter button of your camera. That’s a very fun and at the same time educational way of looking at the world
The life of this famous photographer was filled with extreme experiences: Henri Cartier-Bresson was a hunter in the jungle and a prisoner of war, among other things. In every situation there is something you can learn and that you’ll benefit from as a photographer.
Check out some more features and essays about famous photographers such as William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Humberto Rivas or Graciela Iturbide, for example.