The man who captured the world

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the world's greatest photographers, has died. <i>By Andrew Gumbel</i>
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The Independent Online

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the legendary French news photographer who pioneered the art of capturing the "decisive moment" on film, died on Monday in the south of France, aged 95. The French Culture Ministry said funeral services have been held.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the legendary French news photographer who pioneered the art of capturing the "decisive moment" on film, died on Monday in the south of France, aged 95. The French Culture Ministry said funeral services have been held.

In a career that spanned half a century and took him to every continent, Cartier-Bresson put his faith in his trusty Leica and his ability to see the perfectly composed narrative shot, even if it lasted just an instant. Relying on natural light and without gimmicks or props, his work was often understated and subtle but easily accessible.

His assignments included the Spanish Civil War, the liberation of Paris, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the fall of Beijing to the Communists in 1949. After Stalin's death in 1953, he was the first western photographer admitted to the Soviet Union. He inspired legions of news photographers and employed many of the best at the Magnum PhotoAgency, which he co-founded in 1947 with Robert Capa, Bill Vandivert, George Rodger and David Seymour.

He had not worked as a photographer since the 1980s, when he hung up his lenses to concentrate full-time on his other great love: drawing. And most of his best journalistic work was done in an intense, 20-year period between the late 1940s and late 1960s. But his influence remains strong, particularly in France where he has been fêted in retrospectives (including one at the Louvre) and art shows, and was regarded for much of his life as a national treasure.

Among his most striking photographs was Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, which has a man frozen in mid-air leaping over a puddle, with his shadow forming a symmetrical V contrasting to the vertical fence above the railroad tracks. Rue Mouffetard, a poignant shot of a grinning youngster carrying two bottles of wine on the Left Bank market street, was another.

Cartier-Bresson was born just outside Paris to prosperous parents who gave him cameras during his childhood. Having trained as an artist - and acquired an entrée into the Surrealist movement of the time - he became passionate about photography after a bout of backwater fever, caught during a hunting trip to West Africa, forced him to convalesce and try out new hobbies.

Soon he was snapping pictures obsessively, first in Marseilles, then much further afield. He said he "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". Regarding the camera, in another famous phrase as "an extension of the eye", he created some of the most memorable images of the fascist period in Europe. He was in the French Army in 1940, got captured, escaped from his German captors and spent the war with the Resistance.

After founding Magnum, he travelled the world for magazines, to India, Pakistan, Burma, Japan, Russia, China, Mexico, Canada, the United States and beyond. His pictures were always shot through with a striking humanity. Cartier- Bresson often said no picture could be successful unless it grew from love and comprehension of people and an awareness of "man facing his fate".

He believed, too, that drama was not confined to earth-shattering events. In photography, he wrote in his book The Decisive Moment, "the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif". His celebrated "decisive moment" he defined as "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression".

His technique has gone out of fashion in this age of posed magazine shots using lights, tripods and other paraphernalia. All his great pictures were taken with equipment any amateur could have had, mostly 35mm cameras with a standard 50mm lens or the occasional telephoto for landscapes.

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