Henri Cartier-Bresson: From amateur snapper to photographic icon

A new exhibition uses the private scrapbook of Henri Cartier-Bresson to chart his journey from amateur snapper to photographic icon. Hannah Duguid gets a sneak preview
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The Independent Culture

It was only after the second World War that Henri Cartier-Bresson became the founder of the photo agency Magnum and famous as the photographer of the "decisive moment" – a term he came to dislike. The years before the war were a time of indecision and experimentation for him. In his twenties, with an allowance from his wealthy father, who owned a textile business near Paris, he roamed the world taking photographs in Spain, Italy, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Mexico. He assisted Jean Renoir on films and was influenced by the revolutionary spirit of Surrealism. It was a period during which he struggled to find his method as a photographer.

In 1932, he bought a Leica camera in Marseilles and it was from this moment that he felt he really became a photographer. The Leica liberated the art from heavy and cumbersome technology, enabling Cartier-Bresson to travel and take pictures. It was the age of the snapshot.

Photographs from these formative pre-war years were selected by him for inclusion in a scrapbook, which he kept out of sight in his Paris apartment until the late 1980s. The scrapbook is now part of the collection of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, and it is being exhibited for the first time in the UK at the National Media Museum in Bradford from Friday.

It is a revealing collection that gives more insight into Cartier-Bresson's way of working than his famous photographs of later years. The struggle to find his creative path is evident in the mix of images, some of which reveal the photographer that he would become and some that are clearly influenced by other artists.

For example, there is an early shot of three bloodied goat skins (La Villette Slaughterhouse, Paris, 1932) that is influenced by the Surrealist photographer André Breton. Then there are famous images, such as Behind Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, 1932, in which the blurred figure of man, smart in his overcoat and hat, is caught in mid-air leaping over a puddle. It is this kind of shot, of a split-second happening, that led Cartier-Bresson to be labelled the photographer of the decisive moment.

It is seen again in a photograph of the strict formal geometry of an outside staircase that is humanised by the blurred figure of a cyclist racing past on the street below (Hyères, France, 1932). Cartier-Bresson saw the staircase, realised its photographic potential, and then sat and waited for some sort of human element to intrude and complete the shot.

There are multiple shots of the same scene, which show how Cartier-Bresson's technique could bring an image together, creating what he called a "coincidence of line". It is the way his eye structured the surface of an image. In his words: "To take a photograph means to recognise – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning."

A photograph of a child in Salerno, taken in 1933, standing at the end of a wall in front of an old-fashioned cannon is a beautiful example of the way his structuring works. The lines coincide, the edge of a wall meets its shadow; a window breaks up the lines of a wall and the edges of the brickwork, creating a brutal geometric symmetry that is broken by the vulnerable figure of a barefoot child. It is a heartbreaking juxtaposition that inspires fear for what happened to that child, and the cruelties he may well have faced.

Cartier-Bresson said: "A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimetre. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knee." His experimentation with this idea is seen in a series of photographs of children taken in Seville in 1933. The images are framed by the hole in a white wall, the exposed brickwork providing a jagged edge within which a rag-tag group of young boys, aged around 12, climb and push each other and laugh, occasionally pausing in their play to stare into the camera lens. The series shows how hard it is to capture some kind of meaningful coincidence within the unpredictable gestures of children.

Cartier-Bresson shot the same scene 16 times, and of these photographs he selected three for his scrapbook. In the images he chose, the children engage with the camera lens; there is a relationship between the lens and the subject that creates meaning for the viewer as they look into the eyes of the child.

His fascination with the gaze, the knowing glances between camera lens and subjects, is present in a third of the 150 photographs taken before 1936. The way we look at each other is often more revealing than what we are prepared to say, and it is more difficult to conceal a look. In a photograph, a look creates narrative – as with the sly, sidelong glance of a nonchalant father (Valencia, Spain, 1933) as he refuses to look at the camera directly and engage with the photographer, or with the defiant head-on stare of a bare-breasted courtesan (Prostitutes, Alicante, 1933). It was the possibilities of visual story-telling within a photograph that led Cartier-Bresson towards film-making.

In New York during the mid-1930s he put his photographic career temporarily on hold and took a job assisting Renoir with his film A Day in the Country, which was never completed. In 1939, he worked on Renoir's film La Règle du Jeu ("The Rules of the Game"), but by the time he realised that his talent lay in capturing real life rather than in the fictional art of cinema, he had missed out on photographing the Spanish Civil War – something he regretted forever. It meant that he was absent from the formative years of war reportage when his friend, and fellow founder of Magnum, Robert Capa took the astounding photograph Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936, which pictures a soldier shot in action. It captured the brutal reality of war with an immediacy that had never been seen before.

As war engulfed Europe, Cartier-Bresson enlisted. He buried his Leica in the Vosges mountains, in Eastern France, where he was taken prisoner in 1940 and held for three years until he eventually escaped. While photographing the liberation of Paris in 1944, with his unearthed Leica, he heard that New York's Museum of Modern Art was planning a posthumous exhibition of his work.

Believing him to be dead, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall from Moma had been searching out his prints. Cartier-Bresson contacted them and arrived in New York in 1946, along with his scrapbook, which he had filled with his favourite images to show to Moma.

It was the Moma exhibition and the formation of Magnum, both in 1947, that launched Cartier-Bresson as a serious professional photographer, rather than the talented amateur he had been. Truman Capote, who knew him, summed him up beautifully in his book The Dogs Bark: "Cartier-Bresson is another tasse de thé entirely – self-sufficient to a fault. I remember once watching Bresson at work on a street in New Orleans – dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye: click-click-click (the camera seems part of his own body) clicking away with a joyous intensity, a religious absorption. Nervous and merry and dedicated, Bresson is an artistic 'loner', a bit of a fanatic."

Henri Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook Photographs 1932-1946 are at the National Media Museum in Bradford (0870 701 0200) 7 March to 1 June; Henri Carter-Bresson's 'Scrapbook' is published by Thames and Hudson, priced £45