Regarded as one of the greatest photographers of his time, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a shy Frenchman who elevated "snap shooting" to the level of a refined and disciplined art. His sharp-shooter’s ability to catch "the decisive moment," his precise eye for design, his self-effacing methods of work, and his literate comments about the theory and practice of photography made him a legendary figure among contemporary photojournalists.
His work and his approach have exercised a profound and far-reaching influence. His pictures and picture essays have been published in most of the world’s major magazines during three decades, and Cartier-Bresson prints have hung in the leading art museums of the United States and Europe (his monumental ‘The Decisive Moment’ show being the first photographic exhibit ever to be displayed in the halls of the Louvre). In the practical world of picture marketing, Cartier-Bresson left his imprint as well: he was one of the founders and a former president of Magnum, a cooperative picture agency of New York and Paris.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908, in Chanteloupe, France, of prosperous middle-class parents. He owned a Box Brownie as a boy, using it for taking holiday snapshots, and later experimented with a 3 X 4 view camera. But he was also interested in painting and studied for two years in a Paris studio. This early training in art helped develop the subtle and sensitive eye for composition, which was one of his greatest assets as a photographer.
In 1931, at the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson spent a year as a hunter in the West African bush. Catching a case of backwater fever, he returned to France to convalesce. It was at this time, in Marseille, that he first truly discovered photography. He obtained a Leica and began snapping a few pictures with it. It was a pivotal experience. A new world, a new kind of seeing, spontaneous and unpredictable, opened up to him through the narrow rectangle of the 35 mm viewfinder. His imagination caught fire. He recalls how he excitedly "prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life, to preserve life in the act of living."
Thus began one of the most fruitful collaborations between man and machine in the history of photography. He remained devoted to the 35 mm camera throughout his career. The speed, mobility, the large number of exposures per loading, and, above all, the unobtrusiveness of the little camera perfectly fitted his shy, quicksilver personality. Before long he was handling its controls as automatically as an expert racing driver shifts gears. The camera itself, in his own famous phrase, became an "extension of the eye".
When World War II erupted, Cartier-Bresson served briefly in the French Army and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of France. After two unsuccessful tries, he escaped from the camp where he was held as a prisoner of war, and worked with the underground until the war’s end.
Resuming his interrupted career as a photojournalist, he helped form the Magnum picture agency in 1947. Assignments for major magazines would take him on global travels, across Europe and the United States, to India, Russia and China. Many books of Cartier-Bresson photographs were published in the 50’s and 60’s, the most famous being ‘The Decisive Moment’ (1952). A major milestone in his career was a massive, 400-print retrospective exhibition, which toured the United States in 1960.
As a journalist, Henri Cattier Bresson felt an intense need to communicate what he thought and felt about what he saw, and while his pictures often were subtle they were rarely obscure. He had a high respect for the discipline of press photography, of having to tell a story crisply in one striking picture. His journalistic grappling with the realities of men and events, his sense of news and history, and his belief in the social role of photography all helped keep his work memorable.
He has said that a sense of human dignity is an essential quality for any photojournalist, and feels that no picture, regardless of how brilliant from a visual or technical standpoint, can be successful unless it grows from love and comprehension of people and an awareness of ‘man facing his fate." Many of his portraits of William Faulkner and other notables have become definitive, catching as they do, with relaxed and casual brilliance, the essence of personality.
His first book contained an often-quoted paragraph that sums up his approach to photography and has become something of a creed for candid, available light photojournalists everywhere. The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson tersely defined it, is ‘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 event its proper expression."
Some critics accused him of being nothing more than a snap-shooter. It is true that the "decisive moment’ approach, in less disciplined hands, can degenerate into haphazard, unselective snap shooting. But the best of Cartier-Bresson’s works, with their uncanny sense of timing, rigorous organization, and deep insights into human emotion and character, could never have been caught by luck alone, unaided by a rare talent. They are snapshots only in the classic sense of "instantaneous exposures " snapshots elevated to the level of art.
"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject," he wrote in ‘The Decisive Moment’. "The little human detail can become a leitmotif." Most of his photography is a collection of such little, human details; concerned images with universal meaning and suggestion. He lived in a haunted world where mundane facts, a reflection in a mud-puddle, an image chalked on a wall, the slant of a black-robed figure against mist, radiate significance at once familiar and only half-consciously grasped. His was an anti-romantic poetry of vision, which finds beauty in "things as they are," in the reality of here and now.
All his great pictures were taken with the kind of equipment owned by many amateur photographers: 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with a normal 5Omm lens or occasionally a telephoto for landscapes.
Along with Dr. Erich Salomon and Alfred Eisenstaedt, he was a pioneer in available light photojournalism, and would no sooner intrude flash or flood into his pictures than would a fly fisherman toss rocks into a pool where he hoped to catch a prize trout.
By having so skillfully exploited the camera’s ability to transfix a moment in time’s flow, Cartier-Bresson has left us a treasure of images. We can, through his eyes, see the world a little more clearly, and find truth and beauty where we had not guessed they existed.