© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Robert Capa died in 1954 after stepping on a landmine in Indo-China - the French army awarding him the Croix de Guerre with Palm post-humously. David Seymour (Chim) was killed in Egypt two years later by machine-gun fire, while covering the armistice of the 1956 Suez War.
Despite the tragic loss of his two great photographic compatriots Henri and his camera still continued to travel the world - most famously Canada, China, Japan, Mexico and the United States. Interestingly he became the first Western photographer to photograph ‘freely’ in the post-war Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.
Toward the end of the 60's Cartier-Bresson began to turn away from photography altogether and return to his original passion for drawing and painting - admitting that perhaps he had said all he could through his photography. He married fellow Magnum photographer Martine Franck in 1970, after his previous marriage, to Ratna Mohini had ended three years previously. The couple had a daughter, Mélanie, in May 1972. He also gradually began loosening his ties with the Magnum agency - albeit remaining a member until his death.
He began more formally retiring from photography in the early 1970s, and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than shooting an occasional private portrait. He said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out, preferring instead to indulge in his rekindled love of the brush and pen. After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through his legendary photography, he would eventually say:
"All I care about these days is painting - photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”
He held his first exhibition of drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York in 1975, but his body of photographic work would never become superseded by his artwork in the public’s affection.
Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation
In 2003, Henry along with his wife Martine and daughter Mélanie created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Montparnasse, Paris, in order to... 'preserve the independence and keep alive the spirit of HCB's work.'
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
HCB Technique ...and thoughts about photography
"Technique is not so important to me, but people and their activities are!”
Henri Cartier-Bresson exclusively used Leica 35mm rangefinder cameras equipped with 35mm and 50mm lenses. He famously used black paint or wrapped black tape around the camera's chrome body to make it less conspicuous, and with fast (for the standards of the day) black and white film (400ASA) he was able to capture events unfolding with speed, stealth and the minimum of fuss.
Not bound by huge 4×5 press cameras of old, or an awkward medium format twin-lens reflex camera, the 35mm format gave Cartier-Bresson what he called "the velvet hand," and "the hawk's eye." He never photographed with flash ...a practice he saw as being akin to “coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand."
He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom, and he showcased this skill and belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Indeed, to emphasize the fact that his prints were not cropped, he would insist that they include the first millimetre or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area, resulting, after printing, in a black border around the developed (positive) image.
Cartier-Bresson worked almost exclusively in black and white, with only very rare forays into the world of colour. He disliked developing or making his own prints – in fact legend has it that he once declared to be allergic to darkroom chemicals. He said...
"I've never been interested in the process of photography, never, never. Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing."
He dismissed others applying the term 'art' to his photographs ...which he thought were merely his gut reactions to moments in time that he had happened upon! Scorning photographic paraphernalia and cutting his equipment to a minimum, he would also avoid all technical discussion...
"These things should be as automatic as changing gear in an automobile."
Mark Franklin - March 2011
All images reproduced with the kind permission of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and Magnum Photos
Ironically he was a photographer who hated to be photographed himself, treasuring his privacy above all. Several photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson do exist (publically) but they are few and far between. When he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he even held a paper in front of his face to avoid being photographed. Presumably this ardent desire to maintain such anonymity throughout his lifetime had the advantage of allowing him to work on the street unrecognised and thus in peace.
In an interview conducted in 2000, Cartier-Bresson noted that it wasn't necessarily that he hated to be photographed, but that he was embarrassed by the notion of being photographed for being famous ...an opinion somewhat at odds with the minor-celebrity saturated world we now find ourselves living in.
In a statement, French President Jacques Chirac said upon the passing of Cartier-Bresson:
“With him, France loses a genius photographer, a true master, and one of the most gifted artists of his generation, and most respected in the world.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson died in Montjustin (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France) on the 3rd of August 2004, aged 95 - no official cause of death was ever pronounced. He is buried in the cemetery of Montjustin and is survived by his wife, Martine Franck, and their daughter Mélanie.
Henri spent more than three decades on assignment for Magnum, Life and other journals, seemingly travelling without bounds whilst documenting some of the most important upheavals of the 20th century ...such as the Spanish civil war, the liberation of Paris in 1944, the 1968 student rebellion in Paris, the fall of the Kuomintang in China to the communists, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the Berlin Wall.
Along the way he paused to create stunning portraits of Camus, Colette, Matisse, Picasso, Pound and Giacometti. But many of his most renowned photographs, such as Behind the Gare St. Lazare (below), are of ordinary daily life, seemingly unimportant moments in time captured, and ...then gone.
The French government have always insisted that the images that appeared for sale must have come from another source. Nonetheless, the Cartier-Bresson Foundation formally requested a formal admission from the state confirming that did not destroy the damaged prints, but simply threw them away – for others to find! Not surprisingly there is plenty of motive for such chicanery, as a single such HCB print can be worth more than a quarter of a million dollars!
In 1960 Henri had bequeathed the Louvre collection to the French state, who archived it in the National Centre for Contemporary Arts; a further selection of images were added to it in 1970, bringing the total number of pictures in the collection to 551.
However in 1991, when the centre moved its archives from the 16th arrondissement of Paris to La Défense, it was discovered that the prints had been severely damaged by a basement water leakage. Representatives from the Culture Ministry asked Henri if they could subsequently have the entire exhibition destroyed. Henri with a heavy heart agreed.
Officials were then supposed to cut the damaged photographs in half but his wife Martine apparently witnessed batches of prints from this ‘lost’ collection turning up on the French art market before her husband's death in 2004. The prints were actually identified by Cartier-Bresson himself as coming from the government collection in 2001. After a formal complaint their sale was blocked and the incident was kept quiet. Not surprisingly Cartier-Bresson was so aggrieved with this debacle that he refused to leave any more of his works to the French state.
In 2009 the French media reported that Cartier-Bresson photographs originally exhibited in the Louvre exhibition were being sold on the art market. These claims were supported by Martine Franck who again believed that the hundreds of Louvre photographs thought to have been destroyed were actually still being made available on the open market. Martine, herself a renowned photographer and member of Magnum Photos has not surprisingly accused the French state of negligence over their handling of the images.
Cartier-Bresson held his first French exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Pavillon De Marsan at the Palais du Louvre in Paris (below). The exhibition opened on 26th October and ran until 30th November 1955. It initially featured 358 photographs hand selected by Henri and Robert Delpire - but the exhibition would subsequently grow to ultimately 551 images. However, circumstances surrounding the Louvre exhibition which would occur much later in France would alas give reason to cause Cartier-Bresson great distress.
The book included a portfolio of 126 of his best photos from the East and the West shot between the years 1932 to 1950. The cover was created by Henri’s good friend Henri Matisse, and for his 4,500-word philosophical preface he took his keynote text from the 17th century Cardinal De Retz...
"Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" which translated means... "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment".
"Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera”.Unfortunately no longer in print, The Decisive Moment is arguably the single most influential and important photographic book of the 20th century ...and today, even copies in poor condition can fetch upwards of $600 or more.
The Decisive Moment
Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948 and for the last stages of the Chinese Civil War. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he went on to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) where he documented the acquisition of their independence from the Dutch.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book Images à la Sauvette, which when strictly translated means... Images on the Fly. Although Henri put the words into sublime practise, and will forever be associated with the phrase, legend has it that it was actually Dick Simon of Simon & Schuster who came up with the now iconic title ‘The Decisive Moment’ for the English edition of the book (below).
As a working photographer Cartier-Bresson found the misuse of his photographs by editors to be a continuing irritation. So during the spring of 1947, Cartier-Bresson, along with Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger founded Magnum Photos – its name being derived from the 1.5l size champagne bottle. Although considered Capa's brainchild, Magnum was a cooperative, a picture agency wholly owned by its members – and the team split photo assignments among the members according to experience and talent. For example Rodger, who had quit Life in London after covering World War II, would cover Africa and the Middle East. Chim who spoke the most European languages fluently would work in Europe, and Cartier-Bresson would be assigned to India and China. Vandivert, who had also left Life to join Magnum, would work in America ...and Capa would work anywhere that had an assignment. Maria Eisner managed the Paris office and Rita Vandivert, Vandivert's wife, managed the New York office and became Magnum's first President.
Their insistence that the photographer’s artistic integrity should be respected is an enduring benefit to photographers today. "Capa and his friends," remarked one commentator, "invented the photographer's copyright."
Magnum's mission statement was to 'feel the pulse' of the times, and some of its first projects were entitled... ‘People Live Everywhere’, ‘Youth of the World’, ‘Women of the World’ and ‘The Child Generation’.
The agency’s primary aim was to use photography in the service of humanity, and provide arresting, widely viewed images whilst doing so. Today its motto reads...
Witnessing the Present Envisioning the Future Preserving the Past
"Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually."
World War II
With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Cartier-Bresson decided to enlist in the French army and was made a corporal in the Film and Photo Unit. During the Battle of France in June 1940 at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains (and coincidentally on the very same day that the French government capitulated to Nazi Germany and signed an armistice) the unit was captured and Henri was transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Wuerttemberg. He made two unsuccessful attempts to escape in his thirty-five months of captivity, finally succeeding on his third try. His escape involved hiding on a farm in Touraine before obtaining false papers that allowed him to travel throughout the occupied country.
For the remainder of the war he worked for the underground, joining the MNPGD which aided fellow POW's escape from the Nazis. He also worked secretly with other photographers to document and cover the Occupation and then the Liberation of France. He had dug up his beloved Leica camera, which he had buried in farmland near Vosges, and put it to good use once again. At the end of the war he was asked by the American Office of War Information to make a documentary. Le Retour (The Return) is about returning French prisoners and displaced persons.
However towards the end of the war, rumours were circulating America that Cartier-Bresson had been killed. The aforementioned film on returning war refugees helped prove otherwise. Released in the United States in 1947, it spurred a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) instead of the posthumous show that the MoMA had been preparing. Mark Twain would have been impressed! The show debuted together with the publication of his first book... The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
They lived in a fourth-floor apartment in Paris at 19, rue Danielle Casanova. It comprised of a large studio with a small bedroom, kitchen and bathroom where Cartier-Bresson developed film.
Between 1937 and 1939 Cartier-Bresson worked as a photographer for the French Communists' evening paper, Ce Soir. Along with Chim and Capa, Cartier-Bresson was a distinctly left of centre politically - but he never actually ever joined the French Communist party.
Also in 1937, Henri married Javanese dancer, Ratna 'Elie' Mohini (below). She was born in Batavia under the name Carolina Jeanne de Souza-Ijke. Ratna was known as 'Elie' to her friends.
The Coronation of King George VI
Cartier-Bresson's first published photographs as a photojournalist where those he shot whilst covering the 1937 coronation of King George VI (below), for the French weekly Regards. He focused on the new monarch's adoring subjects lining the London streets, and took no pictures of the King or actual coronation ceremony. Interestingly his photo credit read 'Cartier' as he was still hesitant to use his full family name.
Henri also helped Renoir make a film for the Communist party on the country's richest families, including his own, who seemed to run France. It was entitled La vie est à nous. IMDb simply categorizes it as a propaganda film for the communist party of France.
During the Spanish civil war, Cartier-Bresson also co-directed an anti-fascist short film with Herbert Kline called Return to Life. It was made primarily to promote the Republican medical services, and was commissioned by the Medical Bureau and the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy.
Upon his return home from the United States, Cartier-Bresson applied for a job with renowned French film director Jean Renoir (below). He acted in Renoir's 1936 film Partie de campagne (English title: A Day in the Country) and in the 1939 classic La Règle du jeu (English title: The Rules of the Game) for which he played a butler, and served as second assistant. Renoir suggested Cartier-Bresson try his hand at acting so as to really understand what it felt like to be on the other side of the camera.
Whilst there Carmel Snow (right) the then Editor of Harper's Bazaar commissioned Henri to shoot a fashion assignment - but he fared poorly since he had little idea of how to direct or interact with the models.
Nevertheless, Snow was the first American editor to publish Cartier-Bresson's photographs in a magazine, and Henri would go on to describe Snow as being ‘magic’ to work with.
Exhibiting in United States
Henri travelled to the United States in 1935 with an invitation to exhibit his work at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. He shared display space with fellow photographers Walker Evans, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo again.
The two photographers had a great deal in common culturally, and through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later also changed his name to... Robert Capa (below). The three shared a studio in the early 1930s and Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson, convincing him to escape the label of being a surrealist photographer...
"Watch out for labels," Capa told his friend, "They're going to stick you with one you won't get rid of ...that of a little Surrealist photographer. You're going to be lost. You'll become precious and mannered."
Later that same year Henri met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin who everyone called "Chim" because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin would later change his name to David Seymour (left).
"I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to 'trap' life."
He would comment upon this photograph many times during his life, including the following famous quotation:
"I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influenced me. There is such intensity in this image, such spontaneity, such joie de vivre, such miraculousness, that even today it still bowls me over."
Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika inspired Cartier-Bresson to stop painting altogether and to take up photography exclusively; and the anonymity that his new small Leica camera gave him, in a crowd, or during an intimate moment, was he felt, essential in overcoming the reactionary and unnatural behaviour of those who were aware of being photographed. He further enhanced his anonymity by painting over or using black tape to hide all the chrome parts of the Leica. And the Leica opened up new possibilities in photography ...the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He would say:
He also deepened his relationship with the Surrealists and became inspired by a 1930 photograph taken by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi. Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika (below) showed three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the Liberian surf of Lake Tanganyika. The captured freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and sheer joy of being alive would have a remarkable effect upon the young Cartier-Bresson, who wrote...
“For me this photograph was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm. I suddenly realized that, by capturing the moment, photography was able to achieve eternity. It is the only photograph to have influenced me. This picture has such intensity, such joie de vivre, such a sense of wonder that it continues to fascinate me to this day."
First Leica ...and Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika
Returning to France in late 1931, Cartier-Bresson chose to recuperate in Marseille, where he famously purchased his first Leica camera, a Model I (sometimes referred to as a Model A) with a 50mm lens (below).
During his time there he chose to survive by shooting game and selling it to local villagers. These hunting exploits would apparently teach him methods which he would later say he used in his photography.
But whilst on the Côte d'Ivoire, he contracted blackwater fever, one of the less common yet most deadly complications of malaria. It nearly killed him.
Anecdotal legend has it that whilst still feverish, Henri had sent instructions to his grandfather for his own funeral - requesting he be buried in Normandy, at the edge of the Eawy forest, while Debussy's String Quartet was played.
An uncle actually wrote back...
"Your grandfather finds all that too expensive. It would be preferable that you return first.”
Fortunately for his grandfather's finances he managed to survive.
Although Cartier-Bresson took a portable camera, purportedly smaller than a Box Brownie, to the Côte d'Ivoire, only seven photographs survived the entire trip. But the experience in Africa had proved a seminal one, in that it appears to have erased any desire Henri still had at the time to earn his living by becoming a painter.
Africa ...adventure on the Côte d'Ivoire
During his period of enlistment Henri had read ‘Heart of Darkness’ (below), Joseph Conrad's book about European colonization. It must have had a profound effect upon him for he decided to head off to escape and seek adventure on the Côte d'Ivoire in French colonial Africa.
Henri had recently met and become firm friends with a rich American expatriate named Harry Crosby (left). Decadence personified, Crosby was the son of one of the richest banking families in New England, a member of the Boston Brahmin, and the nephew of Jane Norton Grew, the wife of financier J.P. Morgan Jr. He was thus heir to a portion of a substantial family fortune, and his influence enabled Crosby to persuade the officer to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody for a few days.
Reveling in their mutual interest of photography, they proceeded to spend their time together taking and printing photographs at Crosby's home, Le Moulin du Soleil (The Sun Mill), near Paris. Crosby would later say that Cartier-Bresson... "Looked like a fledgling, shy and frail, and mild as whey.”
Profoundly affected by his experiences in World War I, where he had volunteered to serve in the American Field Service ambulance corp, Crosby vowed to live life on his own terms and abandon all pretense of living the cosseted and suffocating lifestyle of a privileged Bostonian. This resulted in a very hedonistic attitude towards fidelity and his marriage - and embracing the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse, Cartier-Bresson soon fell headlong into an intense relationship with her, ultimately with tragic consequences. The ménage à trois would end in tragedy with Harry Crosby committing suicide with another woman under scandalous circumstances and Cartier-Bresson's affair with Caresse ended shortly thereafter, leaving him bereft and broken hearted.
Cambridge and the Crosbys
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended Cambridge University in England, where he studied English literature and art ...becoming fully bilingual in the process.
In 1930, he completed his mandatory service in the French Army where he was stationed at Le Bourget, near Paris. It was during this period though that Cartier-Bresson was placed under house arrest by his Air Squadron Commandant for hunting without a license.
Of increasing importance too was the fact that in late twenties Paris, photography had become an important medium in itself.
Man Ray (left) for example was experimenting with exciting new techniques and processes, and many of the Surrealists used photography to signal that their art belonged firmly in the modern, mechanical world.
The emergence of much smaller cameras was also freeing photography of the technical constraints of earlier, more cumbersome equipment.
The diminutive and compact Leica camera for example, which would go on to play such a seminal role in Cartier-Bresson’s work, was discreet, easy to carry, and comparatively simple to use.
It gave photographers the ability to make spontaneous, high quality images on the move, and so reportage photography, or photojournalism, as it would more commonly later be called, was truly born.
Although it was thought that Henri developed artistically within this culturally and politically turbulent environment, and, although he was sensitive and open to the concepts and theories extolled by the movement’s leaders, he nonetheless felt unable to find a adequate way of expressing himself, at least to his own satisfaction with his paintings. As a consequence he became hugely frustrated with his own efforts and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works.
The Surrealist Movement
Seeking fresh inspiration Cartier-Bresson soon sought out the flourishing Surrealist movement. Founded in 1924, Surrealism soon became the focus of Cartier-Bresson’s new artistic pretensions and he began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche - whereupon he met a number of the movement's leading protagonists such as Dali, René Crevel, André Breton and Louis Aragon (below).
During this period of exciting artistic discovery, Lhote made sure to take his pupils to both the Louvre, to study the classical artists, and to other notable Parisian galleries to study contemporary art.
Henri would later describe Lhote as his...
“Teacher of photography without a camera.”
Although he would gradually begin to become restless under Lhote's somewhat rule-laden approach to art and its appreciation, his rigorous theoretical training would nonetheless stand him in good stead as later it would assist and influence his own legendary photographic compositional skills.
However, Uncle Louis' painting lessons were tragically cut short, when he was killed in the First World War - but by this time Henri had already been introduced to a number of distinguished figures in Parisian artistic circles.
In 1927, at the then age of 19, Cartier-Bresson entered a private art school, and the Lhote Academy - the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote (left). He also studied painting with the gifted society portraitist and noted anglophile Jacques Émile Blanche (below).
As a young boy, Cartier-Bresson had owned a Box Brownie (right) and used it for taking holiday snapshots. He also experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera - but it would be an exaggeration to say that photography had held any genuine fascination for him as a child, and there was no obvious portent of things to come.
Indeed, after unsuccessfully trying to learn music, Henri was introduced to oil painting by his uncle Louis, a gifted painter himself. Cartier-Bresson would go on to say in later years:
“Painting has been my obsession from the time that my 'mythical father', my father's brother, led me into his studio during the Christmas holidays in 1913, when I was five years old. There I lived in the atmosphere of painting ...I inhaled the canvases.”
His father had every reason to presume that his son would take up the mantle and succeed him as the head of the family business, and thus expected him to enter business school after finishing at the Lycee Condorcet (left).
Henri instead failed the entrance exam three times, and began to pursue his life’s interests elsewhere.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, and was the eldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose famous Cartier-Bresson thread was a prerequisite of French sewing kits of the time. His mother's family were also cotton merchants and land owners from Normandy, and so not surprisingly the Cartier-Bresson family lived in a prosperous upper class neighbourhood, where the young Henri was raised in a traditional French bourgeois fashion with strict Catholic principles.
Born 22 August 1908, died 03 August 2004
Eye of the Century
Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered by many to be the father of modern photojournalism and arguably the greatest photographer of the twentieth century. He was an early adopter of the 35mm format and will forever be associated with Leica – the German manufacturer whose cameras and lenses he used exclusively throughout the decades of his illustrious career. As an undoubted master of street and reportage photography, his stunning vision and style of composition raised photojournalism to an art form. His work has influenced generations of photographers throughout the world, and will surely continue to do so.
Ever restless, Henri took his camera and photographed Berlin, Budapest, Brussels, Madrid, Prague and Warsaw.
His photographs were first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934 whilst in Mexico, he shared an exhibition with Manuel Alvarez Bravo (right).