A pioneer of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson (born 1908) is best known for his images of life in Europe during the 1930s through the 1950s. His work has long been honored with museum retrospectives, which have served to elevate his street-level imagery to the realm of artistic expression.
Cartier-Bresson was born August 22, 1908 in Chanteloup, France, a rural village not far from Paris where the rivers Seine and Marne meet. In the 1990s it would become part of the parcel of land that comprised the Euro-Disney theme park. Henri was the first of three children in the prosperous Cartier-Bresson household, a home situated on Paris's rue de Lisbonne. His father's family had been in the thread manufacturing business since 1789, but both Cartier-Bresson's great-grandfather and a contemporary uncle were talented artists; even his business-minded father liked to sketch. The family of Cartier-Bresson's mother hailed from Normandy, and they, too, possessed a generations-old cotton-manufacturing firm. As the eldest son of the new generation, Cartier-Bresson was naturally expected to direct his education and training toward business in preparation for one day taking on a management role.
A Subversive Student
As a teen, Cartier-Bresson grew into a disaffected bookworm and indifferent student, far more interested in banned literature than mathematics. He attended a Catholic academy in Paris, the Ecole Fenelon, and then went on to the Lycee Condorcet. Early on, he was deeply interested in intellectual currents that were, at the time, very much at odds with the standard Catholic-centered curriculum-psychoanalysis, Nietzschean philosophy, and even Hindu beliefs. One day, a teacher caught him reading the poet Arthur Rimbaud, but Cartier-Bresson was fortunate that the master had been friends with the Paris Symbolist poets in his student days; instead of punishing him, the teacher allowed Cartier-Bresson to read from his own collection of seditious titles in his office after school.
Cartier-Bresson was also very much lured by the visual arts, and visits to the studio of his painter uncle made lasting sensory impressions. He began painting himself around the age of 12. At first, he studied under a cohort of his uncle's named Jean Cottenet, and later studied privately with a "society" painter, Jacques-Emile Blanche, who had been the model for a character in one of Marcel Proust's novels. Expected to enter business school after finishing at the Lycee Condorcet, Cartier-Bresson instead failed the exam three times. By this point Blanche had introduced him to a number of notable names in Parisian artistic circles, and the teen was becoming deeply interested in Surrealism. Arising around 1924, with the writings of Andre Breton, this Paris-centered literary and artistic movement held that the subconscious, as explained by Sigmund Freud, could be unlocked. Surrealist artistic processes centered around "spontaneous" creative expression, such as automatic writing; its adherents also considered themselves willing outcasts from conventional society.
Rejected Bourgeois Life
By 1925, Cartier-Bresson had finished the Lycee and won his parents' permission to study privately with Andre Lhote, a Cubist painter of admirable regard. After spending an extended period visiting a student cousin in England, he spent a compulsory year in the military around 1929, and was stationed at the airfield of Le Bourget, near Paris. His first experiences with a camera occurred with a Brownie he bought around this time. Later in 1930, deeply influenced by Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, he boarded a ship headed for Africa. He disembarked at a French Ivory Coast village, and later moved inland to eke out a living by hunting with a rifle at night with a lamp mounted on his head. He fell into a coma after becoming ill with blackwater fever, and was forced to return to France.
The experience in Africa had erased from Cartier-Bresson any desire to earn his living by standing at an easel all day. In 1931, he embarked upon a long trip across Germany, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary with a writer friend. Back in France in 1932, he bought a Leica camera in Marseilles that he would use for the remainder of his career. From there he went on to other parts of France, and then Spain and Italy, and began photographing images that were revolutionary at the time for their portrayal of Europe's urban underclass and rural poor. It was at this point, wrote Peter Pollack in The Picture History of Photography, that Cartier-Bresson "took his first unforgettable picture: hilarious children chasing a wildly laughing, crippled child on crutches playing in the ruins of a stucco building in Seville."
Cartier-Bresson's work was revolutionary because he used a small, portable camera, which allowed him to record a "decisive moment" in time. That spontaneity-and the unrehearsed, unstaged glimpse into human nature that it captured-would become the distinctive element common to most of his images. The first exhibition of his photographs was held in 1933 at the Atheneo Club in Madrid. Later that same year his first American show took place at New York's Julien Levy Gallery. In 1934, he left for a long sojourn in Mexico, after an invitation from the government to participate in a photography project. Though the funding fell through, he stayed a year, living in a rather squalid area of Mexico City. He shared a flat with American poet, Langston Hughes, and several others.
Around 1935, Cartier-Bresson arrived in New York City for an extended stay. He exhibited with Walker Evans at Julien Levy, and found a vast trove of images for his lens across the city's crowded and colorful boroughs. Cartier-Bresson began dabbling in the cinematic arts with a fellow photographer, Paul Strand. He became further involved in film making in 1936, after returning to France. Cartier-Bresson served as second assistant director for a few films by the esteemed French director Jean Renoir. In 1937, he received a commission to make a documentary about a medical relief program providing aid to Loyalist fighters wounded in the Spanish Civil War.
Cartier-Bresson, now in his late 20s, was not an avowed communist, but had developed decidedly leftist sympathies nonetheless. When he married a dancer from Java, Ratna Mohini, in 1937, he needed a steady income, and thus found a job as a staff photographer for France's Communist daily, Ce Soir. In May of that year he was sent to cover the coronation of England's King George VI, and turned his camera toward the crowd instead, capturing many memorable images of working-class Britons gathered for the day's festivities. At Ce Soir he became friends with two other photojournalists, Robert Capa and David Seymour (known as "Chim"). The three often submitted their leftover work to an agency, Alliance Photo, and many of the images were published in Vu, the French version of the popular American photo-newsweekly, Life.
Three Years as Prisoner
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Cartier-Bresson enlisted in the French army and was made a corporal in its film and photo unit. On the same June 1940 day that the French government capitulated to Nazi Germany and signed an armistice, the unit was captured in the Vosges Mountains and Cartier-Bresson was transported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Wuerttemberg. He made two unsuccessful attempts to escape in his thirty-five months of captivity, and finally succeeded on his third try. Sneaking back into a France still under German occupation, he obtained false identity papers and managed to find work as a commercial photographer, again in Paris. He was also active in an underground group that aided escaped POWs like himself, and organized secret photography units that documented the German occupation.
These resistance activities brought Cartier-Bresson to the attention of American military authorities and, in 1945, at the war's end, he was hired by the U.S. Office of War Information to make La Retour, a film about French citizens returning from prisoner-of-war and deportation camps. In 1947, he traveled to the U.S. when its American debut was planned as part of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective on his career. During this stay he was also able to fulfill a longtime ambition to travel across America.
Pioneer of Photojournalism
Back in France in 1947, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, and Seymour founded Magnum Photo, a cooperative agency of photojournalists owned and run by the members themselves. "After the war, when Chim, Capa, and I met up again, someone pointed out that we should form an association," Cartier-Bresson recalled in an interview with Michel Nuridsany in the New York Review of Books. "… Chim and I would say to each other: 'That Capa's such a go-getter; he lives in fancy hotels, throws parties. We'll never be able to keep up.' It was very worrying. And then we realized that, while playing gin rummy with magazine owners, he would find us jobs. From that point on we shared all our money equally." Even the proceeds from Cartier-Bresson's first book, Images a la Sauvette (published in English as The Decisive Moment), which appeared in 1952, were shared.
Always modest about his achievements, Cartier-Bresson once said of his career as a photographer, "Not only am I an amateur; even worse, I am a dilettante," reported Roger Therond in Contemporary Photographers. Still, the English title of his first book reflects the essence of his greater contribution to photography: Cartier-Bresson merged the spontaneity provided by the miniature camera with the intuitive inspiration heralded by Surrealism. With his camera as a constant companion, he was able to capture the street scenes that exemplified the human-interest angle behind photojournalism itself. Surrealism, wrote Peter Galassi in Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, considered "the street as an arena of adventure and fantasy only thinly disguised by the veneer of daily routine … If Surrealism aimed to eliminate the distinction between art and life, no one achieved this goal more thoroughly than Cartier-Bresson in the early thirties. The tools of his art-a few rolls of film, the small camera held in the hand-required no distinction between living and working," Galassi wrote. "There was no studio, no need to separate art from the rest of experience."
First Western Photographer in Soviet Russia
Cartier-Bresson's leftist sympathies helped secure a visa to enter and photograph China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. At the time, both were totalitarian Communist nations more or less closed to Western visitors, and any images published in the West were heavily censored and aimed at depicting only the positive attributes of their ideology. Cartier-Bresson's book China in Transition was published in English translation in 1956, a year after Moscow/ The People. The publication of other notable volumes of his work-Les Europeens (1955), The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1968), and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographer (1979) among many others-were tied to his conviction that his work should reach the widest possible number of viewers, instead of being restricted to the gallery-museum circuit of the "fine arts."
Cartier-Bresson has been feted with numerous international exhibitions of his work over the length of his career, including the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1952 and Paris's Musee d'Art Moderne in 1981. In 1967, he became the first photographer in the history of the Louvre to have a second solo show. In 1999, Denmark's Louisiana Museum staged a retrospective featuring 185 of his photographs. The show, titled "Europeans," was divided-according to Cartier-Bresson's wishes-by country.
Surprisingly, in 1972 the famed photographer ceased working in this medium and began painting again. Famously reclusive, Cartier-Bresson lives in Paris in an apartment near the Louvre. He does return to photography for the occasional portrait, however. "That I enjoy quite a bit," Cartier-Bresson told Nuridsany in the New York Review of Books. "Or landscapes. But on the street, no. And I don't miss it, either. I tell myself simply, in passing, well, well, look at that, that would have made a photo. That's all."
Further Reading on Henri Cartier-Bresson
Contemporary Photographers, edited by Colin Naylor, St. James Press, 1988.
Galassi, Peter, Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, Museum of Modern Art, 1987.
Photography: Essays and Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
Pollack, Peter, The Picture History of Photography, Abrams, 1969.
New York Review of Books, March 2, 1995.