Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer, film-maker and artist: born Chanteloup, France 22 August 1908; married 1937 Retna Mohini (marriage dissolved), 1970 Martine Franck (one daughter); died l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France 2 August 2004.
"The creative act," remarked Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1980, "lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give and take, just enough for you to level your camera and to trap the fleeting moment in your little box." For Cartier-Bresson, artist turned film-maker and photographer, the art of making good photographs was always to do with the chase, with the capturing of a moment in time, the encapsulation of memory.
Of all the photographers who have directed the very way we think about photography, Cartier-Bresson must be the most influential. His view of the "real" world has informed the course of photojournalism for over 50 years - his insistence on spontaneity, discretion, speed and composition transformed press photography into photojournalism with its emphasis on the photo story, the dramatic moment, the poetic flow of images.
Henri Cartier-Bresson never intended to become a photographer. From early childhood he was fascinated by art. A visit to his uncle's studio stirred an interest in painting which dominated his teenage years; a hobby became a passion. Cartier- Bresson was well placed to enter the Bohemian world of Twenties Paris. He was born in 1908 in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, just outside the capital, where his family ran a successful textile business. Henri was educated at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, but had no desire to continue his academic studies, choosing instead, in 1927, to study under the Montparnasse painter André Lhote, who took him to the Louvre to see the work of the Renaissance masters and to the newest contemporary galleries.
Soon he began to seek the company of the Surrealist artists and writers, attending their meetings at the Café de la Place Blanche - in the work and philosophies of such men as René Crevel, André Breton and Louis Aragon he found both the modernity and the romance which would so distinguish his later photographs. He read widely, from Dostoevsky to Joyce, Proust, Hegel and Marx. Like the artists whom he had befriended on the Left Bank, he was fascinated by the notion of a visual culture moulded by the everyday, by politics and society, by popular culture. He became an habitué of Paris jazz clubs, and his most influential and widely seen photographs would possess a free-flowing rhythm that was instantly recognisable.
The Surrealists introduced Cartier-Bresson to the notion of "wandering", walking the streets of Paris seemingly aimlessly, looking for what he would later describe as "the whole essence . . . of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my very eyes". It was a method of working which would form the basis of his photographic career and become the dominant creed of the Magnum photographic agency which he founded in the late Forties, an organisation which shaped the future and form of photojournalism.
In late Twenties Paris, photography had become an important medium. Man Ray was experimenting with new techniques and compositions and many of the Surrealists used photography to signal that their art belonged firmly in the modern, mechanical world. In Germany, the Bauhaus schools were training photographers to discard the pictorialist notions of the past and to produce clear, concise documentary images. The emergence of the miniature camera freed photography of the technical constraints of earlier, more cumbersome equipment. The Leica, discreet, easy to carry and simple to use, gave photographers the ability to make spontaneous images, to make high-quality photographs quickly and simply.
Cartier-Bresson probably acquired his first Leica camera in the early Thirties and it became what he would describe as his sketchbook: "an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which - in visual terms - questions and decides simultaneously". He became a compulsive traveller, spending a year on the Ivory Coast in 1931 and making many photographs.
On his return from Africa he travelled throughout Europe in the company of the author André Pieyre de Mandiargues (who would later write the introduction to Cartier-Bresson's A Propos de Paris, 1994) and the painter Leonor Fini. Always acutely socially conscious, he was struck by the poverty and social inequity in the countries that he visited. His photographs soon attracted attention in critical circles, and his first exhibition was mounted at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York in 1933. That same year, his photographs were published in Arts et Métiers Graphiques.
In 1934, Cartier-Bresson left Paris on a year-long ethnographic expedition to Mexico. He exhibited again in 1935 in a two-man show with Manuel Alvarez Bravo at the Palacio de Bellas Artes de Mexico. Later that year, he returned to the United States, showing again at the Julien Levy Gallery (along with Walker Evans and Bravo). In the United States, he was exposed to the strength of the new politicised documentary of the American Depression, exemplified by Evans and the photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration and even more by the photographer/film-maker Paul Strand, with whom he studied in 1935.
Had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War, which finally formed him as a photographer, Cartier-Bresson might well have carved out a career as a film-maker. By the late Thirties (after assisting the director Jean Renoir on his 1936 films La Vie est à nous, a.k.a. The People of France, and Une partie de campagne, or A Day in the Country) he was making documentary films, including Victoire de la vie ("Return to Life"), his 1937 study of hospitals in the Republican strongholds of Spain, and, in 1938, L'Espagne vivra ("Spain Will Live").
The encroachment of Fascism in Europe, the enforced flight from France of many of Cartier-Bresson's Jewish and leftist friends, made him even more politically committed. He worked, alongside Robert Capa and David Seymour (later to become founding members of Magnum) on the Communist Party's newspaper Ce Soir, edited by Louis Aragon. It was while working at Ce Soir that Cartier-Bresson's work emerged as the poetic photojournalism with which he is now so closely identified. He grew more and more interested in the notion of society and in photography's ability to educate and expose.
At the beginning of the Second World War he volunteered for the French army's film and photographic corps, was captured and incarcerated before escaping, in 1943, to join the MNPGD, an underground organisation which aided escapees and prisoners. Unable to travel, he began to make a series of photographs of writers and artists; his intense, questioning Forties portraits of Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Picasso have remained some of photographic seminal documents. "The most difficult thing for me is a portrait," he recalled. "You have to try and get your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt."
Cartier-Bresson's, Capa's and Seymour's experiences at Ce Soir, where photographers' work was edited and cropped without consultation, were the basis for their determination to found a photographic agency owned and managed by photographers: a structure which remains firmly in place, at Magnum, to this day.
The idea of the Magnum agency was proposed to Cartier-Bresson and David (Chim) Seymour by Robert Capa, the Hungarian-born photojournalist and war photographer whose career as a photographer in Spain and France, as well as his tragic death in Indochina, has become a photojournalistic legend. Capa, like most of his colleagues, was troubled by the lack of photographers' rights over their own work. "Capa and his friends," remarked one commentator, "invented the photographer's copyright."
Magnum was founded, by Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Seymour and Rita and William Vandivert at a meeting in the penthouse restaurant at the New York Museum of Modern Art in April 1947. Just a year earlier, Cartier-Bresson's first major exhibition had opened at the Moma and, in 1952, the first of a series of monographs appeared, publications which would consolidate his international reputation. Images à la sauvette (translated into English as The Decisive Moment), with its striking cover by Matisse, was an inspiration for photographers who were eager to combine documentary realism with a highly personal view of the world.
Cartier-Bresson's photographs combined lyricism with social commitment and huge affection for the "ordinary" and Images à la sauvette, together with the many books and exhibitions which followed it in the Fifties and Sixties, gave confidence to a new generation of photographers inspired by the everyday and the unremarkable.
While the still, sombre documentary photographs of Walker Evans seemed to belong to another age, and Capa's rapid-fire war photographs had become history, Cartier-Bresson's work was quintessentially modern-dynamic, comical, poetic. When his large-scale solo show finally opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1969 (after much opposition from the museum's directorate), it was so popular that the museum feared for the safety of its visitors. For the British photographic community, starved of quality museum exhibitions, it was a revelation and inspired many successful careers in the medium.
For Cartier-Bresson, the post-war period was a time of extensive travel and exploration. With Magnum's staff managing commissions, printing, recalcitrant editors and fees, the photographers were free to travel the world and make photographs. In 1948, he left Paris for the Far East, and for the next three years travelled through India, China and Indonesia. He visited the Soviet Union in the mid-Fifties, one of the few photographers to be given a visa. In 1958 he made an extended essay on the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic and in the early Sixties returned to Mexico and photographed Cuba for Life magazine.
He travelled as a photojournalist throughout the Sixties, returning to France in 1969 to work on a year-long project culminating in the exhibition " En France" at the Grand Palais in 1970. Throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, he was publishing his photographs as monographs: Les Européens ("The Europeans", 1955), D'une Chine à l'autre ( China in Transition, 1956), Man and Machine (1969), The Face of Asia (1972) and About Russia (1973).
He had married his fellow Magnum photographer Martine Franck in 1970 (a previous marriage, to the Indian dancer Retna Mohini, having ended) and gradually loosened his ties with the Magnum agency, remaining a member until his death, but increasingly concentrating on drawing and personal photography projects. Publishing and exhibiting, interspersed with visits to India, Japan and the Soviet Union, replaced photojournalism as his major interests, and, as the photographic art market developed, sales of photographic prints to museums and private collectors became an important part of his career.
Having given photographic history the phrase "the decisive moment" which came to symbolise the spontaneity and "truth" of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson increasingly returned to his early roots as a fine artist, exhibiting his drawings in 1975 at the Carlton Gallery in New York. But the world knew Henri Cartier-Bresson as a photographer, a visual poet of the real world, and his non-photographic work would not attract the support so wholeheartedly given to his documentary realism.
Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographic career is important in a multitude of different ways. He insisted that photography was art as well as record and that neither was more important than the other. He knew the value of photography as evidence and education, that it was a way of telling us both about ourselves and about societies with which we are unfamiliar. "As photojournalists," he remarked in 1999,
we supply information to a world that is overwhelmed with preoccupations and full of people who need the company of images . . . We pass judgement on what we see, and this involves an enormous responsibility.
His continuing membership of the Magnum agency, long after the time when he ceased to be actively involved with making photographs, signified his continuing belief in the need for photographers to control their own destinies. His strenuous support for or opposition to prospective new members showed that his passion for photography had not abated, that he believed that photography was both a tool of social change and personal enlightenment.
When photographers become immensely popular, with a wide audience, their histories can become forgotten, their images, endlessly published and praised, can be misunderstood. Cartier-Bresson has become irrevocably associated with the idea that photography is somehow instant, almost casual - his byword phrase "the decisive moment" much misconstrued. For Cartier-Bresson, one suspects, nothing was ever casual, he delighted in the ordinary rather than the commonplace, in the nuance rather than the dramatic, the fleeting glance rather than the affronted stare. His photographs were dignified, inquisitive, questions rather than answers.
Though he was immersed for many years in the photojournalistic milieu, one suspects that his constant journeys were merely continuations of those "destination-less walks of discovery" he made in Paris in the Twenties. "To photograph," he believed, "is to hold one's breath."
Scarcely any other photographer, in the 150 years since cameras were invented, has made so huge an impact on his contemporaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, writes Sir Tom Hopkinson.
"Henri," I asked him once, "you've been all over the world. Where, given free choice, would you most like to live?"
"I never," he answered, "was in any country where I did not want to settle down and spend the remainder of my life."
Cartier-Bresson's manner of operating has become a legend. Silent, almost imperceptible, his single camera coated black to render it less conspicuous, he slid in and out of crowds, assemblies, courtrooms, slicing his cross-sections, perfectly timed and shaped, out of the passing scene:
Of all means of expression photography is the only one that fixes for ever the transitory instant. To me photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event and the precise organisation of forms which give that event its true expression . . . What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face?
Scorning paraphernalia and cutting equipment to a minimum, he would also avoid all technical discussion: "These things should be as automatic as changing gear in an automobile." His conviction that the photographer stands in a special relation to reality, with the duty to record what he sees with absolute honesty, led him to adopt a pedantic standpoint on darkroom work. Not only his own, but all photographs should remain exactly as they were taken. No cutting. No retouching. Even the use of flashlight was prohibited.
It was in Marseilles that he took the first unmistakable Cartier-Bresson photograph. Its subject is no more than an elderly man in a bowler hat turning round in the street as if to see what is following him. But the converging lines of the composition reinforce the sense of mystery and unease, as though this were the opening shot in some sinister drama.
"I had just discovered the Leica," he said:
It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since. I prowled the streets all day, strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to trap life. Above all I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of a single photograph, of some situation in the act of unrolling itself before my eyes.
* Sir Tom Hopkinson died 20 June 1990Reuse content