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Famous Photographers - Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson (Aperture Masters of Photography)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (Aperture Masters of Photography)

Famous Photographers >> Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was born to a wealthy family in Chanteloup-en-Brie, near Paris, France and was the oldest of five children. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a grand bourgeois neighborhood near the Europe Bridge. They provided him with the financial support to develop his interests in photography in a more independent manner than many of his contemporaries. He owned a Box Brownie as a boy, using it for taking holiday snapshots, and later experimented with a 3 x 4 view camera.

Sidewalk Cafe, Boulevard Diderot
Sidewalk Cafe, Boulevard Diderot

More Cartier-Bresson images

The Early Years

Cartier-Bresson was introduced to the feel of oil painting by Uncle Louis, a gifted painter. "Painting has been my obsession from the time that my 'mythical father', my father's brother, led me into his studio during the Christmas holidays in 1913, when I was five years old. There I lived in the atmosphere of painting; I inhaled the canvases."

In 1927, at the age of 19, he entered a private art school and the Paris studio of the Cubist and sculptor André Lhote, the Lhote Academy (in the Rue d'Odessa in the Montparnasse district). Henri also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Emile Blanche. While painting, Cartier-Bresson read Fyodor Dostoevsky, Arthur Schopenhauer, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stéphane Mallarmé, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Henri's interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissance - of masterpieces from Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca.

Gradually, Henri began to feel uncomfortable with Lhote's "rule-laden" approach to art. Henri's rigorous theoretical training would later help him to confront and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. At the time, schools of photographic realism were founded throughout Europe. Each school had a differing concept on how photography should develop. The photography revolution had begun, "Crush tradition! Photograph things as they are!" The Surrealist movement founded in 1924 was a big driver of this change in approach.

While still studying at Lhote's studio, Henri began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. He met a number of the movement's leading protagonists. Henri was particularly drawn to the Surrealist movement of linking the subconscious and the immediate to their work.

Henri matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political environment. He was aware of the concepts and theories mentioned but could not find an outlet of expressing this imaginatively in his paintings. He was very frustrated with his experiments and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works.

From from 1928-1929, Henri attended Cambridge University studying English art and literature and became bilingual. In 1930 he served his mandatory service in the French Army. He was stationed at Le Bourget, near Paris. He remembered, "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 1931, once out of the Army and after having reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he sought adventure on the Ivory Coast (French colonial Africa). Henri wrote, "I left Lhote's studio because I did not want to enter into that systematic spirit. I wanted to be myself. To paint and to change the world counted for more than everything in my life." He survived on the Ivory Coast by shooting game and selling it to local villagers. From hunting, he learned methods that he would later use in his photography techniques. It was there on the Ivory Coast that he contracted blackwater fever and almost died.

Henri brought along a Brownie box camera to the Ivory Coast, but most of his film did not survive the tropics. Only seven photographs survived. He called his work on the Brownie "a quick way of drawing intuitively." When Henri returned to France, he deepened his relationship with the Surrealists.

Henri was recuperating in Marseilles in 1931. He became inspired by a photograph shot in 1931 by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika and was caught in near-silhouette. Munkacsi's photograph, titled, Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive. Henri said, "The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street."

The photograph inspired him to put down his paint-brush and to take up photography seriously. Henri acquired a Leica camera with a 50mm lens in Marseilles. This camera would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye. The anonymity it 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. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography - the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He said, "I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to 'trap' life."

Restless, he photographed in Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. He had his first photo exhibition in Madrid in 1933. He spent 1934 in Mexico, where he shared an exhibition with Manuel Alvarez Bravo. At the beginning, he did not photograph much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed there extensively.

In 1934 Henri met a young Polish intellectual, photographer named David Szymin, known as "Chim". Later Szymin changed his name to David Seymour. Henri and Chim had much in common culturally. Before long, Chim introduced Henri to a Hungarian photographer named André Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa. Henri shared a studio in the early 1930s with Chim and Capa.

Henri came to America for the first time in 1935. He was invited to exhibit his work at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. He was approached by Carmel Snow of Harper's Bazaar, who gave him an assignment to do fashion photography. He fared poorly at this assignment for he had no idea how to interact and direct the models. Nevertheless, Snow was the first American editor to publish his photographs in a magazine.

While in New York, he met photographer Paul Strand, who did cinematographic work on the Depression-era documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains. When he returned to France, Henri applied for a job with renowned French film director Jean Renoir. He worked as an actor in Renoir's 1936 film Un Parti de Campagne (A Day in the Country), also in the 1939 La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, Henri plays a butler.). He was second assistant in La Règle du Jeu. Renoir made him act, so he could understand what it felt like on the other side of the camera. Henri also helped Renoir do a film for the Communist party on the 200 families who ran France including his own! During the Spanish civil war, he co-directed an anti-fascist film with Herbert Kline. This film promoted the Republican medical services.

Henri was first published as a photojournalist in 1937 when he was assigned to cover the coronation of King George VI, 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. The accompanying credit for his photographs published in Regards, read "Cartier". He was hesitant about using his full family name.

In 1937, Henri married Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. They had set up their home in a fourth-floor servants' flat at 19, Rue Danielle Casanova. It was a large studio with a small bedroom and kitchen and a bathroom where Henri once developed his films. Between 1937 and 1939 Henri was the photographer for the French Communist's evening paper, Ce Soir. Henri (along with Chim and Capa) was a leftist, but he did not join the French Communist party.

Henri joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit when World War II broke out in September 1939. During the Battle of France, in June 1940 at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps and worked as a forced laborer under the Nazis. According to Henri, he was forced to perform "thirty-two different kinds of hard manual labor." He worked "as slowly and as poorly as possible." He tried to escape twice from the prison camp and failed both times. He was punished by solitary confinement.

His third escape was successful. He hid on a farm in Touraine before getting false papers that allowed him to travel 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 in 1940.

He continued photographing throughout World War II, working with the underground photographic unit recording the Nazi occupation and the liberation. In 1944-45 (by the time of the armistice), 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.

Towards the end of the War, rumors had reached America that Henri had been killed. Henri's 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). The MoMA had begun to prepare a "posthumous" show for him. In 1946 when they learned that Henri was still alive, he volunteered to go to New York to help with the preparation of this exhibition. The show made its debut in 1947. Together with this show, the MoMA also published the first book of his work, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with texts by Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall.

The Formation of Magnum

In the spring of 1947, Henri, along with Robert Capa, David "Chim" Seymour, Bill Vandivert, George Rodger became founders of Magnum Photo. Magnum was the brainchild of Robert Capa. Magnum Photo was to be a cooperative picture agency. The team had decided to split up photo assignments among the members. Rodger, who had quit Life Magazine in London after covering the World War II, would cover Africa and the Middle East. Chim, who spoke most European languages, would work in Europe. Henri would be assigned to India and China. Vandivert, who had also left Life Magazine, would work in America, and Capa would work anywhere that had an assignment. The Paris office was managed by Maria Eisner, formally of Alliance Photo. The New York office was managed by Vandervert's wife, Rita Vandivert. Rita became Magnum's first president. Magnum's purpose was to "feel the pulse" of the times.

Some of Magnum's 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, giving birth to the conception. Magnum provided some of the most arresting and popular images of this period.

The Decisive Moment

Henri achieved journalistic recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's death in India in 1948 and the Maoist revolution in China in 1949. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the incoming Maoist government (the People's Republic). He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he continued on to Indonesia where he documented the independency of the country from the Dutch.

In 1952 he published his book, The Decisive Moment. The book featured a portfolio of 126 photos from the East and the West. It also featured a book cover drawn Henri Matisse. Henri's 4,500-word philosophical preface was where the term Decisive Moment was born. He first wrote it in French, taking his text from the 17th-century Cardinal de Retz: "Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif." This translates to "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment." Henri applied this to his photography style.

Henri said: "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." Tériade, the Greek-born French publisher whom Henri idolized, gave the book its French title, Images à la sauvette, which could be loosely translated as "Shooting on the run." American publisher, Dick Simon of Simon & Schuster came up with the English title, The Decisive Moment. Margot Shore, Magnum's Paris bureau chief did the English translation of Henri's preface.

"Photography is not like painting," he 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."

Henri held his first exhibition in France at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre Museum in 1955.

The Later Years

Henri's photography had taken him to many places on the globe - China, Mexico, Canada, the United States, India, Japan, Soviet Union, and many other countries. Cartier-Bresson became the first Western photographer to photograph freely in the post-war Soviet Union. In 1968 he began to turn away from photography and followed his passion for drawing and painting. Henri left Magnum in 1966 to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes. In 1967 Henri and his first wife Ratna "Elie" were divorced. Henri married photographer, Martine Franck in 1970. In January 1973, Martine and Henri adopted a little girl named Mélanie.

Henri retired from photography in the early 1970s to return to drawing and painting. After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through photography, he said, "All I care about these days is painting - photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing." In 1975, he held his first exhibition of drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York.

The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation was created by Cartier-Bresson and his wife and daughter in 2002 to preserve and share his legacy.

See also: Social Documentary Photography

Further Information

Recommended Reading

Henri Cartier-Bresson (Aperture Masters of Photography) Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson (Aperture Masters of Photography) Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image
and the World:
A Retrospective by Philippe Arbaizar et al
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer
by Yves Bonnefoy,
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson:
A Propos de Paris
Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Artless Art by Henri Cartier-Bresson

On the Web

Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation Paris-based organization founded by Cartier-Bresson to preserve his collection of photographs, to encourage scholarly research into the collection, and to operate a grant program supporting new photography projects.

Tete a Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Tete a Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson from the Washington Post.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Francis Frith ".