Cartier-Bresson, Henri

born Aug. 22, 1908, Chanteloup, Fr.
died Aug. 3, 2004, Céreste

French photographer.

He studied art in Paris and literature and painting at the University of Cambridge. His interest in photography developed с 1930 when he encountered the works of Eugène Atget and Man Ray. He is known for spontaneous, sequential images in still photography, a technique inspired by his enthusiasm for filmmaking. He helped establish photojournalism as an art form and with Robert Capa, David Seymour, and others founded the cooperative Magnum Photos (1947). The best known of his many collections is The Decisive Moment (1952).

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▪ 2005

      French photographer (b. Aug. 22, 1908, Chanteloup, France—d. Aug. 3, 2004, Céreste, France), was a master of street photography, capturing enduring images of spontaneous though impeccably composed and timed glimpses—waiting for what he called “the decisive moment”—both of everyday life and of many of the 20th century's most important historical events and people. With his artistic photojournalism he set a standard for excellence that served as an inspiration and a challenge to those who followed. Cartier-Bresson rejected the idea of going into the family textile business and studied art instead before switching to photography. In the early 1930s he began using a small Leica to shoot black-and-white photos in natural light. He preferred to be unobtrusive, blending into the cultures he was preparing to photograph and often camouflaging parts of his camera. He was meticulous in his framing of shots, and he would not allow his pictures to be cropped. In 1932 he took one of the most famous of his iconic photos—that of a man whose leap above a puddle near a Paris train station is echoed by posters behind him. Cartier-Bresson traveled extensively, and photos taken on his trips were published in a number of magazines. In 1933 in Madrid he had the first of his numerous exhibitions; shows in Mexico City and New York City followed soon thereafter. Cartier-Bresson also worked in film. In addition to making his own documentaries, he assisted Jean Renoir on such motion pictures as Une partie de campagne (1936; A Day in the Country) and La Règle du jeu (1939; The Rules of the Game, 1950). During his army service in World War II, Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner by the Germans. He escaped on his third attempt, joined the Resistance, and helped document the German occupation and retreat and the return home of French prisoners and deportees. In 1947 Cartier-Bresson helped found the Magnum Photos cooperative agency. He remained affiliated with Magnum until 1966, when he largely gave up photography and turned to drawing. Cartier-Bresson and his photographs were the subjects of a number of books, of which the most notable was Images à la sauvette (1952; The Decisive Moment).

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▪ French photographer
born August 22, 1908, Chanteloup, France
died August 3, 2004, Céreste
 French photographer whose humane, spontaneous photographs helped establish photojournalism as an art form. His theory that photography can capture the meaning beneath outward appearance in instants of extraordinary clarity is perhaps best expressed in his book Images à la sauvette (1952; The Decisive Moment).

      Cartier-Bresson was born and attended school in a village not far from Paris. In 1927–28 he studied in Paris with André Lhote (Lhote, André), an artist and critic associated with the Cubist movement. Lhote implanted in him a lifelong interest in painting, a crucial factor in the education of his vision. In 1929 Cartier-Bresson went to the University of Cambridge, where he studied literature and painting.

      As a boy, Cartier-Bresson had been initiated into the mysteries of the simple “Brownie” snapshot camera. But his first serious concern with the medium occurred about 1930, after seeing the work of two major 20th-century photographers, Eugène Atget (Atget, Eugène) and Man Ray. Making use of a small allowance, he traveled in Africa in 1931, where he lived in the bush, recording his experiences with a miniature camera. There he contracted blackwater fever, necessitating his return to France. The portability of a small camera and the ease with which one could record instantaneous impressions must have struck a sympathetic chord, for in 1933 he purchased his first 35-mm Leica. The use of this type of camera was particularly relevant to Cartier-Bresson. It lent itself not only to spontaneity but to anonymity as well. So much did Cartier-Bresson wish to remain a silent, and even unseen, witness, that he covered the bright chromium parts of his camera with black tape to render it less visible, and he sometimes hid the camera under a handkerchief. The man was similarly reticent about his life and work.

      In more than 40 years as a photographer, Cartier-Bresson wandered continually around the world. But there was nothing compulsive about his travels, and he explicitly expressed a desire to move slowly, to “live on proper terms” in each country, to take his time, so that he became totally immersed in the environment.

      In 1937 Cartier-Bresson produced a documentary film, his first, on medical aid in the Spanish Civil War. The date also marked his first reportage photographs made for newspapers and magazines. His enthusiasm for filmmaking was further gratified when, from 1936 to 1939, he worked as an assistant to the film director Jean Renoir (Renoir, Jean) in the production of Une Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) and La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game). As a photographer he felt indebted to the great films he saw as a youth. They taught him, he said, to choose precisely the expressive moment, the telling viewpoint. The importance he gave to sequential images in still photography may be attributed to his preoccupation with film.

      In 1940, during World War II, Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner by the Germans. He escaped in 1943 and the following year participated in a French underground photographic unit assigned to record the German occupation and retreat. In 1945 he made a film for the U.S. Office of War Information, Le Retour, which dealt with the return to France of released prisoners of war and deportees.

      Though Cartier-Bresson's photographs had been exhibited in 1933 in the prestigious Julien Levy Gallery in New York City, a more important tribute was paid to him in 1947, when a one-man exhibition was held in that city's Museum of Modern Art. In that same year, Cartier-Bresson, in partnership with the U.S. photographer Robert Capa (Capa, Robert) and others, founded the cooperative photo agency known as Magnum Photos. The organization offered periodicals global coverage by some of the most talented photojournalists of the time. Under the aegis of Magnum, Cartier-Bresson concentrated more than ever on reportage photography. The following three years found him in India, China, Indonesia, and Egypt. This material and more, taken in the 1950s in Europe, formed the subjects of several books published between 1952 and 1956. Such publications helped considerably to establish Cartier-Bresson's reputation as a master of his craft. One of them, and perhaps the best known, Images à la sauvette, contains what is probably Cartier-Bresson's most comprehensive and important statement on the meaning, technique, and utility of photography. The title refers to a central idea in his work—the decisive moment—the elusive instant when, with brilliant clarity, the appearance of the subject reveals in its essence the significance of the event of which it is a part, the most telling organization of forms. Later books include Cartier-Bresson's France (1971), The Face of Asia (1972), and About Russia (1974).

      He was singularly honoured by his own country in 1955, when a retrospective exhibition of 400 of his photographs was held at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and was then displayed in Europe, the United States, and Japan before the photographs were finally deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library) in Paris. In 1963 he photographed in Cuba; in 1963–64, in Mexico; and in 1965, in India. The French filmmaker Louis Malle (Malle, Louis) recalled that, during the student revolt in Paris in May 1968 Cartier-Bresson appeared with his 35-mm camera and, despite the explosive activities, took photographs at the rate of only about four per hour.

      In the late 1960s Cartier-Bresson began to concentrate on making motion pictures—including Impressions of California (1969) and Southern Exposures (1971). He believed that still photography and its use in pictorial magazines was, to a large extent, being superseded by television. On principle, he always avoided developing his own prints, convinced that the technical exigencies of photography were a harmful distraction. Similarly, he directed the shooting of films and did not wield the camera himself. With this medium, however, he was no longer able to work unobtrusively by himself. Cartier-Bresson devoted his later years to drawing.

      His Leica—his notebook, as he called it—accompanied him wherever he went, and, consistent with his training as a painter, he always carried a small sketch pad. There was for Cartier-Bresson a kind of social implication in the camera. To his mind, photography provided a means, in an increasingly synthetic epoch, for preserving the real and humane world.

Aaron Scharf

Additional Reading
Collections of Cartier-Bresson's work may be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; and the George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y. A useful bibliography and several perceptive essays are included in Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1947); in more recent editions the bibliographies have been deleted. A selected bibliography appears in Nathan Lyons (ed.), Photographers on Photography (1966), where also the complete text of Cartier-Bresson's essay in his Decisive Moment (1952) is reproduced. No complete biography of Cartier-Bresson exists. There is a brief account of one of his U.S. tours in John Malcolm Brinnin, Sextet (1981). The present literature deals mainly with the character of his work. Beaumont Newhall, “The Instant Vision of Henri Cartier-Bresson,”Camera, 34:485–489 (1955), is a valuable discussion of the photographer's equipment and manner of working. See also Cartier-Bresson's work, The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1968) and Cartier-Bresson: Photographer (1979).

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Universalium. 2010.

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