|Born||August 22, 1908|
|Died||August 3, 2004 (aged 95)|
|Burial place||Montjustin, France|
|Alma mater||Lycée Condorcet, Paris|
|Occupation||Photographer and painter|
(m. 1937; div. 1967)
|Awards||Grand Prix National de la Photographie in 1981|
Hasselblad Award in 1982
Henri Cartier-Bresson (French: [ka?tje bs]; August 22, 1908 - August 3, 2004) was a French humanist photographer considered a master of candid photography, and an early user of 35 mm film. He pioneered the genre of street photography, and viewed photography as capturing a decisive moment.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, the oldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. His mother's family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy, where Henri spent part of his childhood. His mother was descended from Charlotte Corday. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris, Rue de Lisbonne, near Place de l'Europe and Parc Monceau. His parents supported him financially so Henri could pursue photography more freely than his contemporaries. Henri also sketched.
Young Henri took holiday snapshots with a Box Brownie; he later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was raised in traditional French bourgeois fashion, and was required to address his parents with formal vous rather than tu. His father assumed that his son would take up the family business, but Henri was strong-willed and also feared this prospect.
Cartier-Bresson attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students for the Lycée Condorcet. A governess called "Miss Kitty" who came from across the Channel, instilled in him the love of - and competence in - the English language. The proctor caught him reading a book by Rimbaud or Mallarmé, and reprimanded him, "Let's have no disorder in your studies!". Cartier-Bresson said, "He used the informal 'tu', which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on, 'You're going to read in my office.' Well, that wasn't an offer he had to repeat."
After trying to learn music, Cartier-Bresson was introduced to oil painting by his uncle Louis, a gifted painter. But the painting lessons were cut short when uncle Louis was killed in World War I.
In 1927 Cartier-Bresson entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. Lhote's ambition was to integrate the Cubists' approach to reality with classical artistic forms; he wanted to link the French classical tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David to Modernism. Cartier-Bresson also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche. During this period, he read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels and Marx. Lhote took his pupils to the Louvre to study classical artists and to Paris galleries to study contemporary art. Cartier-Bresson's interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissance masters: Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca. Cartier-Bresson regarded Lhote as his teacher of "photography without a camera."
Although Cartier-Bresson became frustrated with Lhote's "rule-laden" approach to art, the rigorous theoretical training later helped him identify and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe but each had a different view on the direction photography should take. The Surrealist movement, founded in 1924, was a catalyst for this paradigm shift[vague]. Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. He met a number of the movement's leading protagonists, and was drawn to the Surrealist movement's technique of using the subconscious and the immediate to influence their work. The historian Peter Galassi explains:
The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton...approached the street: with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual...The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
Cartier-Bresson matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political atmosphere. But, although he knew the concepts, he couldn't express them; dissatisfied with his experiments, he destroyed most of his early paintings.
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson studied art, literature, and English at the University of Cambridge, where he became bilingual. In 1930 he was conscripted into the French Army and stationed at Le Bourget near Paris, a time about which he later remarked: "And I had quite a hard time of it, too, because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder."
In 1929, Cartier-Bresson's air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without a licence. Cartier-Bresson met American expatriate Harry Crosby at Le Bourget, who persuaded the commandant to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody for a few days. The two men both had an interest in photography, and Harry presented Henri with his first camera. They spent their time together taking and printing pictures at Crosby's home, Le Moulin du Soleil (The Sun Mill), near Paris in Ermenonville, France.:163 Crosby later said Cartier-Bresson "looked like a fledgling, shy and frail, and mild as whey." Embracing the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse, Cartier-Bresson fell into an intense sexual relationship with her that lasted until 1931.
Two years after Harry Crosby died by suicide, Cartier-Bresson's affair with Caresse Crosby ended in 1931, leaving him broken-hearted. During conscription he read Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This gave him the idea of escaping and finding adventure on the Côte d'Ivoire in French colonial Africa. He survived by shooting game and selling it to local villagers. From hunting, he learned methods which he later used in photography. On the Côte d'Ivoire, he contracted blackwater fever, which nearly killed him. While still feverish, he sent instructions to his grandfather for his own funeral, asking to be buried in Normandy, at the edge of the Eawy Forest while Debussy's String Quartet was played. Although Cartier-Bresson took a portable camera (smaller than a Brownie Box) to Côte d'Ivoire, only seven photographs survived the tropics.
Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson recuperated in Marseille in late 1931 and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. He became inspired by a 1930 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, this captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive. That photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, "I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant."
He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. He enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography--the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. Restless, he photographed in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. His photographs were first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1933, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934 in Mexico, he shared an exhibition with Manuel Álvarez Bravo. In the beginning, he did not photograph much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed there extensively.
In 1934, Cartier-Bresson met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin who was called "Chim" because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin later changed his name to David Seymour. The two had much in common culturally. Through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa.
Cartier-Bresson traveled to the United States in 1935 with an invitation to exhibit his work at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. He shared display space with fellow photographers Walker Evans and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Carmel Snow of Harper's Bazaar gave him a fashion assignment, but he fared poorly since he had no idea how to direct or interact with the models. Nevertheless, Snow was the first American editor to publish Cartier-Bresson's photographs in a magazine. While in New York, he met photographer Paul Strand, who did camerawork for the Depression-era documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains.
When he returned to France, Cartier-Bresson applied for a job with renowned French film director Jean Renoir. He acted in Renoir's 1936 film Partie de campagne and in the 1939 La Règle du jeu, for which he played a butler and served as second assistant. Renoir made Cartier-Bresson act so he could understand how it felt to be on the other side of the camera. Cartier-Bresson also helped Renoir make a film for the Communist party on the 200 families, including his own, who ran France. During the Spanish civil war, Cartier-Bresson co-directed an anti-fascist film with Herbert Kline, to promote the Republican medical services.
Cartier-Bresson's first photojournalist photos to be published came in 1937 when he covered the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, for the French weekly Regards. He focused on the new monarch's adoring subjects lining the London streets, and took no pictures of the king. His photo credit read "Cartier", as he was hesitant to use his full family name.
In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married a Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. They lived in a fourth-floor servants' flat in Paris at 19, rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs (now rue Danielle Casanova), a large studio with a small bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom where Cartier-Bresson developed film. Between 1937 and 1939, Cartier-Bresson worked as a photographer for the French Communists' evening paper, Ce Soir. With Chim and Capa, Cartier-Bresson was a leftist, but he did not join the French Communist party. In 1967, he was divorced from Ratna "Elie".
In 1970 Cartier-Bresson married Magnum photographer Martine Franck  and in May 1972, the couple had a daughter, Mélanie.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, Cartier-Bresson joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. During the Battle of France, in June 1940 at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains, he was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labor under the Nazis. He twice tried and failed to escape from the prison camp, and was punished by solitary confinement. His third escape was successful and he hid on a farm in Touraine before getting false papers that allowed him to travel in France. In France, he worked for the underground, aiding other escapees and working secretly with other photographers to cover the Occupation and then the Liberation of France. In 1943, he dug up his beloved Leica camera, which he had buried in farmland near Vosges. At the end of the war he was asked by the American Office of War Information to make a documentary, Le Retour (The Return) about returning French prisoners and displaced persons.
Toward the end of the War, rumors had reached America that Cartier-Bresson had been killed. His film on returning war refugees (released in the United States in 1947) spurred a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) instead of the posthumous show that MoMA had been preparing. The show debuted in 1947 together with the publication of his first book, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall wrote the book's text.
In early 1947, Cartier-Bresson, with Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger founded Magnum Photos. Capa's brainchild, Magnum was a cooperative picture agency owned by its members. The team split photo assignments among the members. Rodger, who had quit Life in London after covering World War II, would cover Africa and the Middle East. Chim, who spoke a variety of European languages, would work in Europe. Cartier-Bresson would be assigned to India and China. Vandivert, who had also left Life, would work in America, and Capa would work anywhere that had an assignment. Maria Eisner managed the Paris office and Rita Vandivert, Vandivert's wife, managed the New York office and became Magnum's first president.
Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948 and the last stage of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing, as the city was falling to the communists. In Shanghai, he often worked in the company of photojournalist Sam Tata, whom Cartier-Bresson had previously befriended in Bombay. From China, he went on to Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), where he documented the gaining of independence from the Dutch. In 1950, Cartier-Bresson had traveled to the South India. He had visited Tiruvannamalai, a town in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu and photographed the last moments of Ramana Maharishi, Sri Ramana Ashram and its surroundings. A few days later he also visited and photographed Sri Aurobindo, Mother and Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.
Magnum's mission was to "feel the pulse" of the times and some of its first projects were People Live Everywhere, Youth of the World, Women of the World and The Child Generation. Magnum aimed to use photography in the service of humanity, and provided arresting, widely viewed images.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book Images à la sauvette, whose English-language edition was titled The Decisive Moment, although the French language title actually translates as "images on the sly" or "hastily taken images", Images à la sauvette included a portfolio of 126 of his photos from the East and the West. The book's cover was drawn by Henri Matisse. For his 4,500-word philosophical preface, Cartier-Bresson took his keynote text from the 17th century 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"). Cartier-Bresson applied this to his photographic style. He said: "Photographier: c'est dans un même instant et en une fraction de seconde reconnaître un fait et l'organisation rigoureuse de formes perçues visuellement qui expriment et signifient ce fait" ("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.").
Both titles came from Tériade, the Greek-born French publisher whom Cartier-Bresson admired. He gave the book its French title, Images à la Sauvette, loosely translated as "images on the run" or "stolen images." Dick Simon of Simon & Schuster came up with the English title The Decisive Moment. Margot Shore, Magnum's Paris bureau chief, translated Cartier-Bresson's French preface into English.
"Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."
The photo Rue Mouffetard, Paris, taken in 1954, has since become a classic example of Cartier-Bresson's ability to capture a decisive moment. He held his first exhibition in France at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre Museum in 1955.
Cartier-Bresson's photography took him to many places, including China, Mexico, Canada, the United States, India, Japan, Portugal and the Soviet Union. He became the first Western photographer to photograph "freely" in the post-war Soviet Union.
In 1962, on behalf of Vogue, he went to Sardinia for about twenty days. There he visited Nuoro, Oliena, Orgosolo Mamoiada Desulo, Orosei, Cala Gonone, Orani (hosted by his friend Costantino Nivola), San Leonardo di Siete Fuentes, and Cagliari.
Cartier-Bresson withdrew as a principal of Magnum (which still distributes his photographs) in 1966 to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes.
In 1967, he was divorced from his first wife of 30 years, Ratna "Elie". In 1968, he began to turn away from photography and return to his passion for drawing and painting. He admitted that perhaps he had said all he could through photography. He married Magnum photographer Martine Franck, thirty years younger than himself, in 1970. The couple had a daughter, Mélanie, in May 1972.
Cartier-Bresson retired from photography in the early 1970s, and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait; he said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out. He returned to drawing, mainly using pencil, pen and ink, and to painting. He held his first exhibition of drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York in 1975.
Cartier-Bresson died in Céreste (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France) on August 3, 2004, aged 95. No cause of death was announced. He was buried in the local cemetery nearby in Montjustinand was survived by his wife, Martine Franck, and daughter, Mélanie.
Cartier-Bresson spent more than three decades on assignment for Life and other journals. He traveled without bounds, documenting some of the great upheavals of the 20th century — the Spanish Civil War, the liberation of Paris in 1944, the fall of the Kuomintang in China to the communists, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the May 1968 events in Paris, the Berlin Wall. And along the way he paused to document portraits of Camus, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound and Giacometti. But many of his most renowned photographs, such as Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, are of seemingly unimportant moments of ordinary daily life.
Cartier-Bresson did not like to be photographed and treasured his privacy. Photographs of Cartier-Bresson are scant. When he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he held a paper in front of his face to avoid being photographed. In a Charlie Rose interview in 2000, Cartier-Bresson noted that it wasn't necessarily that he hated to be photographed, but it was that he was embarrassed by the notion of being photographed for being famous.
Cartier-Bresson believed that what went on beneath the surface was nobody's business but his own. He did recall that he once confided his innermost secrets to a Paris taxi driver, certain that he would never meet the man again.
In 2003, he created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris with his wife, the Belgian photographer Martine Franck and his daughter to preserve and share his legacy. In 2018, the foundation relocated from the Montparnasse district to Le Marais.
Cartier-Bresson's photographs were also influential in the development of cinéma vérité film. In particular, he is credited as the inspiration for the National Film Board of Canada's early work in this genre with its 1958 Candid Eye series.
Cartier-Bresson almost always used a Leica 35 mm rangefinder camera fitted with a normal 50 mm lens, or occasionally a wide-angle lens for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera's chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white film and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph events unnoticed. No longer bound by a 4×5 press camera or a medium format twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called "the velvet hand...the hawk's eye."
He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as "impolite...like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand."
He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. He insisted that his prints be left uncropped so as to include a few millimeters of the unexposed negative around the image area, resulting in a black frame around the developed picture.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color.[dubious ] He disliked developing or making his own prints and showed a considerable lack of interest in the process of photography in general, likening photography with the small camera to an "instant drawing". Technical aspects of photography were valid for him only where they allowed him to express what he saw:
Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see... The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.-- Henri Cartier-Bresson
He started a tradition of testing new camera lenses by taking photographs of ducks in urban parks. He never published the images but referred to them as 'my only superstition' as he considered it a 'baptism' of the lens.
Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the art world's most unassuming personalities. He disliked publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days of hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Although he took many famous portraits, his face was little known to the world at large. This, presumably, helped allow him to work on the street undisturbed. He denied that the term "art" applied to his photographs. Instead, he thought that they were merely his gut reactions to fleeting situations that he had happened upon.
In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotiv.-- Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson was second assistant director to Jean Renoir in 1936 for La vie est à nous and Une partie de campagne, and in 1939 for La Règle du Jeu.
Cartier-Bresson's work is held in the following public collections: