Henri Cartier-Bresson: Right on the button

Henri Cartier-Bresson never thought what he did was art, but he was wrong, says his one-time colleague Adrian Hamilton

The more you see the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson the stronger becomes his claim to be the greatest photographer of the previous century.

There are more arty photographers such as Edward Weston and Richard Avedon. There are photographers such as  Robert Capa and Donald McCullin who have recorded better the face of war and the tragedies of the age. But Cartier-Bresson makes you see the world anew. You can never see one of his pictures without being surprised at their quirkiness, their freshness and, above all, their humanity.

It is 10 years now since his death and the Pompidou Centre is marking it with, almost unbelievably, the first full retrospective in Europe. It aims – and largely succeeds – in trying to break down what it is that makes him such a great photographer and to show just how diverse and developing was his art.

It’s not an approach that the photographer himself would necessarily have liked. His ambition was always to produce an art that was artless. Photography was never a competitor or a branch of “Art” in his eyes. It was something special to itself, a means of capturing what he famously called the “decisive moment”, when the balance of a composition or the look on a face said something special about time, place and the world we live in.

He was a pleasure to work with, as I found when doing a series of profiles for Vogue in the mid-Sixties. Always professional and modest, he’d arrive at the locations with two Leicas set with different light speeds of film. Glancing about, he’d put one aside and, taking the appropriate one, he’d move about looking for the right background while you interviewed the subject.

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1974 Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1974 (AFP/Getty Images)
Most of the subjects were surprised that he didn’t ask them to sit or stand this way or that. But it wasn’t his way. “Just talk to Adrian,” he’d say in the perfect English he’d learned from a year in Cambridge in his youth. “I’ll just stay in the background.” Which is what he did, almost invisible, a craft he revealed he’d learned from his time in the French Resistance during the war.

The mechanics of photography or printing didn’t interest him except in so far as it was useful to his eye. He never went in for the  prepared still, flash photography or the zoom lens. He didn’t take to colour. Nor did he care for the monumentalisation of image which has become such a feature of modern art photography. Look for the background, search for the telling detail and wait for the moment to snap was his approach.

It is a mistake to categorise him primarily as a photojournalist, however, although that is how he achieved fame as a founding member of the Magnum co-operative after the war, travelling the world to take photographic essays of time and place. His first love was painting and drawing. It was what he studied in Paris in 1927, after school, and what he returned to when he gave up professional photography in the mid-Seventies. He never succeeded as an artist, and destroyed most of his early efforts. But it gave him an entrée into the artistic circles of Paris in the fervent and fertile years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Modernism was its height and communism all the rage among intellectuals.

It also introduced him to the Surrealists. Half the history of modern art and a great deal more photography could be viewed through the lens of this movement. It taught the importance of the ordinary photograph as a revelation of life, the juxtaposition of ordinary images to create extraordinary meaning and the search for the telling in the detail.

The back of a print by Cartier-Bresson The back of a print by Cartier-Bresson (Getty Images)
Cartier-Bresson took the lessons with considerable application. He would search first for the resonant background and then wait for somebody to come into the picture. There’s a fascinating sequence of early pictures in the exhibition which show just how patiently he prepared for the “decisive moment”.

The style became more natural and spontaneous to him as he became more professional. It is from the early Thirties, when he travelled around France and in Africa and Europe and his year-long sojourn in Mexico (where Surrealism had taken strong hold as a movement) that many of his finest and most experimental pictures belong – the prostitutes in Mexico, the children playing  in a broken wall in Spain, the dockworkers and sailors in Côte d’Ivoire and the window dummies in France and Germany.

Deliberately rejecting the opportunities to photograph local ceremonies, which he saw as a form of exoticism, he concentrated on the face of the ordinary in square and back street. The exhibition is particularly revealing of the way that he constantly tried out different compositions from the street scenes taken from a high vantage point to the still lifes of rotting food and the landscapes of structured lines.

In the end, he rejected most of the self-consciously artistic shots, partly on the advice of Robert Capa, with whom he shared a studio at the time, in favour of the quick snap taken with an eye for the precise composition and detail.

As fascism rose and Nazi Germany threatened he returned to France to work for the communist newspapers. The series he took of the French workers at play on the Seine when they were given holiday rights are justly famous, fond and teasing. More of a revelation here is the group of photographs he snapped for the weekly Regards of the crowds at the coronation of George VI in London in 1937, many of them using periscopes which involved them facing away from the process. The Pompidou would have you believe that was a comment on the futility of royal occasion, which he didn’t directly picture at all, but what comes across is the photographer’s pleasure in the chaos and pleasure of crowds.

A woman looks at a photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti A woman looks at a photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (AFP/Getty Images)
Eager to contribute to the cause, he saw moving film as the best means of promoting issues and shaping opinion, going to the Spanish Civil War to co-direct an anti-fascist film and joining Jean Renoir as a general dogsbody on some of his finest films. One of the rare delights of this show are the sequences from Renoir’s Partie de Campagne and La Règle du Jour in which Cartier-Bresson is roped in to act as a lascivious novitiate admiring the ankles of a nun and, of all things, an aristocrat taking target practice on a model worker in the latter.

The war itself found Cartier-Bresson, who had joined up as a corporal in the Film and Photo unit of the army, a prisoner of war. After nearly three years in a camp and two attempts at escape, he succeeded on the third and joined the Resistance. It taught him, if his retiring manner hadn’t already achieved it, the necessity of anonymity and discretion. His film and photographs of the delousing of freed internees at Dachau are remarkable not just for their unsparing eye but their mood of  pain suffered.

The Magnum co-operative was founded in 1947 and Cartier-Bresson was given India and China as his specialist fields. The shots he took of Gandhi’s funeral (he had had a session with him hours before his assassination) and of India divided are remarkable documents of their time. But it is to the pictures of humanity rather than history that one goes – the women praying to the horizon in Srinegar, the monk walking through the steam funnels of Mount Aso in Japan and the rhythmic shots of groups he shot in Jerusalem, Scanno in Italy, Oaxaca in Mexico, Prizren in Kosovo and almost everywhere else he travelled.

People look at Cartier-Bresson's pictures at the retrospective People look at Cartier-Bresson's pictures at the retrospective (AFP/Getty Images)
Colour he rejected as a diversion from the proper art of photography and the exhibition includes an intriguing little section on the colour portfolios he did shoot, reluctantly, for Life and other magazines. They are composed just as they would have been in black and white and could work just as well reproduced that way. But they are also shot with an artist’s eye for the pattern of colour.

He withdrew as partner in Magnum in 1966, feeling he had gone as far as he wanted in reportage and feeling out of kilter with the way the co-operative and photography were going. Instead, he chose to concentrate on the more artistic, and composed fields of portraiture and landscape. They were areas where his artistic sense of composition and the context could find more expression. He was particularly good at catching artists in their moments of contemplation or activity and it was to art he returned in his last years, although he was rarely found without a camera on his walks.

A wonderful exhibition of a wonderful man, a great artist of a medium he always denied was properly art.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, Centre Pompidou, Paris (centrepompidou.fr) to 9 June

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal