Henri Cartier-Bresson

Annie Lee | Nov 28, 2022

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, born on August 22, 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie and died on August 3, 2004 in Montjustin, was a French photographer, photojournalist and draughtsman. Known for the precision and the graphics of his compositions (never cropped in the print), he was especially famous in street photography, the representation of picturesque or significant aspects of everyday life (The Europeans). With Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger, they founded the cooperative agency Magnum Photos in 1947.

The concept of the "decisive moment" is often used in relation to his photographs, but it can be considered too reductive and one might prefer the concept of the "photographic shot", which takes the context into account. For some, he is a mythical figure of twentieth century photography, which a relative longevity of his photographic career allows him to cross, by looking at the major events that marked the middle of the century.

In 2003, a year before his death, a foundation bearing his name was created in Paris to ensure the preservation and presentation of his work as well as to support and exhibit the photographers to whom he felt close. The Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2014 renewed the vision we had of him, explicitly showing his militant activity for the Communist Party in the period 1936-1946.

The eldest of five children, Henri Cartier-Bresson was born into a middle-class family. His father was a very successful spinner. His mother belonged to a family of merchants and landowners in Normandy. The family's lifestyle was very much in keeping with the customs of the milieu, with all five children being polite to their parents. In Paris, the young Henri attended first the Fénelon school, then the Condorcet high school.

Since childhood, he has been interested in drawing and photography. At the age of twelve, he joined the Scouts de France in the group of the parish Saint-Honoré-d'Eylau. Totally named "Anguille frémissante", it is during the scout camps that he takes his first photographs with a Kodak Brownie offered by his parents.

When he left Condorcet, at the age of eighteen, he opposed his father who would have liked to see him take over the family business. He wants to paint, to be an artist, and his obstinacy will overcome his father's reticence.

1926-1935: the double influence of André Lhote and the surrealists

First of all, Cartier-Bresson learned painting with André Lhote in 1927-1928 and Jean Cottenet. In the studio, rue d'Odessa, in the Montparnasse district, the students analyzed the paintings of the masters by superimposing geometric constructions according to the "divine proportion" (the golden ratio). As soon as it was published, a work by Matila Ghyka on the golden ratio became one of the young Cartier-Bresson's bedside books.

During his military service, he met Max Ernst, André Breton and the Surrealists at the Crosby's house, and he discovered photography with the couple Gretchen and Peter Powell. He had an affair with Gretchen Powell for a few months, which, in his words, "could not succeed", then left for Africa in 1930. It was at the age of twenty-three, in the Ivory Coast, that he took his first pictures with a second-hand Krauss. He published his reportage the following year (1931). He bought his first Leica in Marseille in 1932, decided to devote himself to photography and left for Italy with André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Leonor Fini. Then he photographed Spain, Italy, Mexico and Morocco. His photographs show a great mastery of composition, the result of his experience with Lhote, as well as elements of life taken on the spot. Cartier-Bresson's photographs are always precisely situated geographically and in time, as well as in each cultural context.

At the same time, under the influence of surrealism, Henri Cartier-Bresson sees himself as a receiver of manifestations of urban wonder and confides: "the photos take me and not the other way around." He retains André Breton's definition of "convulsive beauty": "explosive-fixed" (a thing perceived simultaneously in motion and at rest), "magical-circumstantial" (chance encounter, objective chance), "veiled erotic" (an eroticism of the eye). Cartier Bresson also liked to photograph the spectators of an off-camera scene, another form of veiled eroticism: the object of the gaze being concealed, the desire to see intensifies. Clément Chéroux recalls how Peter Galassi (en), curator of photography at MoMA, has specified the photographer's modus operandi:

"He first locates a background whose graphic value seems interesting to him. It is often a wall parallel to the plane of the image, and which comes like framing it in depth. Then, as a few sequences of preserved negatives allow us to verify, the photographer waits for one or more elements endowed with life to find their place in this arrangement of forms that he himself defines in a very surrealist terminology as a "simultaneous coalition". One part of the image is thus very composed, the other more spontaneous."

1936-1946: political commitment, work for the communist press, cinema and war

Cartier-Bresson became fully committed to communism and the anti-fascist struggle. He read Engels' Ludwig Feuerbach, which formulated the concept of "dialectical materialism," and encouraged his friends and family to read it. He frequented the AEAR (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) from 1933 and, in 1934, in Mexico, his friends were all communists close to the ruling National Revolutionary Party. In 1935, in New York, he was an active member of Nykino, a cooperative of militant filmmakers inspired by Soviet political and aesthetic concepts (including Ralph Steiner and Paul Strand), and he discovered Soviet cinema (Eisenstein, Dovjenko). Although he does not seem to have joined the PCF, in Paris, his friends are the communist personalities Robert Capa, Chim, Henri Tracol, Louis Aragon, Léon Moussinac, Georges Sadoul who married his sister). He told Hervé Le Goff: "Naturally, we were all communists. He took courses in dialectical materialism from Johann Lorenz Schmidt and attended cell meetings near Aragon's home.

In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married Eli, a traditional Javanese dancer famous under the stage name of Ratna Mohini (en). With her, he campaigned for the independence of Indonesia.

He descended from a family of wealthy industrialists and, in order to avoid being assimilated to his family, he took the name Henri Cartier, under which he would be known in all his militant activity, the signing of tracts in 1934, the quotations of his name in the communist press, and in all his production of photographs and films until the end of the war.

On March 2, 1937, the new communist daily Ce soir (directed by Louis Aragon, with Robert Capa and Chim as its regular photographers) published on its front page, every day from its first issue, 31 photos of destitute children taken by Henri Cartier (the so-called "lost child" contest).

In May 1937, the newspaper sent him to London to report on the coronation of George VI. Henri Cartier took a series of shots of people watching the procession, without showing it. The images were very successful in Ce soir, and the report was reprinted in the communist magazine Regards (directed by Léon Moussinac, Robert Capa's regular photographer).

Henri Cartier abandons the "golden number" and the "convulsive beauty" in favor of a "dialectical realism" and, the cinema having in the eyes of the communist militants a stronger impact than the photo, Henri Cartier turns to the cinema.

He became Renoir's assistant for La vie est à nous, a film commissioned by the Communist Party for the legislative elections of May 1936 (monumental effigies of Lenin, Marx and Stalin, participation of party dignitaries such as Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Marcel Cachin, Maurice Thorez, Marcel Gitton and Jacques Duclos). Henri Cartier is a member of Ciné-Liberté, the film section of the AEAR, which produced La vie est à nous. He was also in the film crew of Partie de campagne (where he was also an actor) and La Règle du jeu. His work for Renoir spans from 1936 to 1939.

At the initiative of Frontier Film (the new name of Nykino, founded and directed by Paul Strand), but with a French crew, Henri Cartier shoots Victory of Life in Spain (consequences of the Italian and German bombings, international medical aid, installation of a mobile hospital, rehabilitation of the wounded).

He was mobilized, taken prisoner, escaped and joined a resistance group in Lyon. He photographed the fighting during the Liberation of Paris and the martyred village of Oradour-sur-Glane. The film The Return (discovery of the camps in Germany by the Allies, repatriation of the prisoners to France) was released in France at the end of 1945.

In August 1939, following the German-Soviet Pact, the Communist press was banned and the French Communist Party was dissolved. Robert Capa and Georges Sadoul were denied visas and thus prevented from working. McCarthyism and de-Stalinization lead Cartier-Bresson to organize the occultation of his political commitment and his photos and films signed Henri Cartier. This operation was successful: a note from the Renseignements généraux in March 1946 stated that "to date he has not attracted any attention from a political point of view. But this radical oversight would lead to the publication of very ill-informed, even fanciful, studies, and to a distorted view of his work for many years, for one cannot grasp Cartier-Bresson's vision of the world if one is unaware of the political commitment that helped shape it. Cartier-Bresson voted communist until the 1956 Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising.

1947-1970: from the creation of Magnum to the end of reportage

In February 1947, Cartier-Bresson opened his major retrospective at the MoMA, which confirmed the occultation of his communist militancy.

With his communist friends Robert Capa and David Seymour, he founded Magnum in 1947: a self-managed cooperative, with shares held exclusively by the photographers, who own their negatives, where all decisions are made in common and profits are fairly distributed. On the advice of Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson left surrealist photography to devote himself to photojournalism and reportage.

In August 1947, he was appointed as an expert for photography at the United Nations. He leaves for India for Magnum and travels, with his wife Eli (Ratna), through India, Pakistan, Kashmir and Burma. He sees the consequences of the partition on the ground, with twelve million people displaced on the roads. Through a friend of his wife, he obtained an appointment with Gandhi, a few hours before his death. He photographed the announcement of his death by Nehru, and then Gandhi's funeral. These images were published in Life and travelled around the world.

At Magnum's request, Cartier-Bresson went to Beijing and photographed the last hours of the Kuomintang, the extent of deflation and, in Shanghai, the rush of people to a bank to convert their money into gold (an image published in the first issue of Paris Match and widely reported in the press).

Cartier-Bresson obtains a visa to travel to the Soviet Union during the thaw after Stalin's death and arrives in Moscow in July 1954. Magnum sold the reportage to Life at a high price, which was published on January 10 and 17, 1955, and then sold it to Paris Match, Stern, Picture Post and Epoca.

Robert Capa was killed in Indochina in 1954 while reporting for Life. Chim was killed in 1956 while reporting on the Suez Canal crisis.

In early 1963, immediately after the missile crisis, Cartier-Bresson travels to Cuba. The photographs will be published on March 15, 1963 on the front page and on eight double pages of Life, accompanied by an article written by the photographer himself.

For a year, he criss-crossed France by car. The book Vive la France will be published in 1970. He also photographed the Six Days of Paris bicycle race. Following a request from the Braun publishing house, he made a series of portraits of painters (Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Braque and Rouault), then, for magazines or publishers, many portraits (Giacometti, Sartre, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie).

Refusing any idea of fashion photography, he made an exception for Bettina in the 1950s.

In parallel with the reportages, which imposed their rapid pace of work, Cartier-Bresson carried out long-term thematic studies on his own behalf. As early as 1930, he became interested in dance and, with Eli (Ratna), he did a detailed study of dance in Bali. He discovered the pictorial language of dance, and was subsequently interested in the way bodies in movement were inscribed in urban space on numerous occasions. In contrast to earlier periods when his images were mainly flat, Cartier-Bresson now uses the depth of field he learned from Jean Renoir, and it is even the main element of composition in many of his photographs.

Other recurring themes will be man and machine, icons of power, consumer society, crowds. Together with dance, this long-term documentary accumulation constitutes a scientific study of the human being in his visual language, a true "visual anthropology".

1970-2002: the time of drawing and contemplation

Cartier-Bresson felt the fatigue of this intense life, his desire to make photographs was no longer the same. On the other hand, in 1966, he met Martine Franck, a photographer, who would become his second wife in 1970. With the birth of their daughter Melanie in 1972, Cartier-Bresson legitimately aspired to more calm and sedentary life.

He supported René Dumont's candidacy in the 1974 presidential elections. Since the end of the war, he has been a member of the humanist movement, except that he is dubious about the unanimity that is often found in this vast philosophical movement: on the contrary, he always strives to give a faithful account of both the geographical and historical roots of those he photographs, and of the context in which they were taken. He demands that the detailed caption accompanying each photo he sends to Magnum be published at the same time as any photo that is reproduced, and he specifies:

"I want the captions to be strictly information, not sentimental remarks or irony. Let the pictures speak for themselves and for Nadar's sake, don't let people sitting behind desks add what they haven't seen. I make it my personal business to respect these legends as Capa did with his reportage."

Finally, Cartier-Bresson no longer recognized himself in the Magnum agency he had founded: his young colleagues adopted the fashions of consumerism and went so far as to compromise themselves by doing advertising, a behavior that the man who had received Marxist-Leninist training in his youth could not understand. He withdrew from the agency's business, stopped taking orders for reports, devoted himself to organizing his archives and, from 1972, returned to drawing. However, he will always keep his Leica close at hand and will continue to take pictures as he wishes.

For Cartier Bresson, drawing is an art of meditation, very different from photography. Some people have tried to reduce Cartier-Bresson's photography to the "decisive moment," a formula that results from a translation from English of which he is not the author, whereas the quotation from Cardinal de Retz that he originally put at the beginning of Images à la sauvette said: "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment." Many of Cartier-Bresson's photographs do not have a "decisive moment"; they could have been taken a moment before or a moment after. Moreover, for him, taking a picture on the spot is only half the process, the other half being the composition of the image, which requires prior knowledge, and therefore time. Cartier-Bresson was a passionate hunter, an activity that requires, like photography, knowledge of the terrain and the reading of lifestyles. In this sense, his practice of photography is similar to hunting. After his surrealist period, he became passionate about "archery" with its accompanying Zen philosophy. Rather than "decisive moment", we can speak of "photographic shooting", a concept that takes the context into account. Clément Chéroux titles his book of photographs Henri Cartier-Bresson: le tir photographique (2008).

Cartier-Bresson did not like color photography, he only used it out of professional necessity. Unlike black and white film, whose relatively high sensitivity allows the hunter photographer to shoot at the right moment, color film, which is much slower, is restrictive. Moreover, while the photographer has a wide range of gray in black and white to translate all the nuances of values (degrees of light intensity), the values offered by three-color film are, for Cartier-Bresson, much too far from reality.

Cartier-Bresson photographed several Tibetan Buddhist masters, including Kalu Rinpoche in 1987 and the Dalai Lama, Dagpo Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche in 1993.

In 1996, Cartier-Bresson was named honorary professor at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts, and then, concerning Tibet, he wrote a letter to the Chinese authorities to denounce "the persecutions of which China is guilty. A Buddhist, he regularly attended the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama, whom he also photographed. He has been an activist for the Tibetan cause.

In 2003, a year before his death, the Bibliothèque nationale de France devoted a major retrospective exhibition to him, curated by Robert Delpire. The Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou runs from February 12, 2014 to June 9, 2014. Curated by Clément Chéroux, the exhibition features extensive documentation of his communist commitment and militant activity in the period 1936-1946.

Henri Cartier-Bresson died in August 2004. His friend Jean Lacouture evokes him, "implacable hunter of the decisive moment" in Enquête sur l'auteur. He is buried in Montjustin in the Luberon, and his wife, Martine Franck, who died in 2012, is buried next to him.

In 2003, shortly after the retrospective at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Martine Franck and her daughter founded the Henri-Cartier-Bresson Foundation. The HCB Foundation, located on rue des Archives in the Marais district of Paris, ensures the preservation of his work and its presentation to the public, as well as that of the photographers who are dear to him, around the practice of reportage.

The foundation awards a prize every two years, which gives the right to an exhibition, two years later, within the foundation.

"The great passion is photographic shooting, which is an accelerated drawing, made of intuition and recognition of a plastic order, fruit of my frequentation of museums and painting galleries, of reading and an appetite for the world."

- Les Cahiers de la photographie n° 18, 1986. Conversation with Gilles Mora)

"You have to be sensitive, try to guess, be intuitive: rely on the "objective chance" that Breton spoke of. And the camera is a wonderful tool to capture this 'objective chance'."

- No one can enter here if he is not a surveyor", interview with Yves Bourde, in Le Monde, 5 September 1974

"Photography is the concentration of the eye. It is the eye that watches, that turns tirelessly, on the lookout, always ready. The photo is an immediate drawing. It is question and answer."

- Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1975

"Composition must be one of our preoccupations, but at the moment of photographing it can only be intuitive, because we are dealing with fleeting moments where relationships are shifting. To apply the golden section ratio, the photographer's compass can only be in his eye."

- L'instant décisif", Les Cahiers de la photographie n° 18, 1986. H. Cartier Bresson

"I'm not from here. I'm from Asia. I am a non-resigned Buddhist, angry at the state of the world. But nonviolent by definition."

- In front of the Luberon landscape according to Jean Lacouture


  1. Henri Cartier-Bresson
  2. Henri Cartier-Bresson
  3. ^ a b Editors, Biography com. "Henri Cartier-Bresson". Biography. Retrieved 18 October 2022. {{cite web}}: |last= has generic name (help)
  4. À quelques exceptions près.
  5. Voir ci-dessous « 1970-2002 : le temps du dessin et de la contemplation ».
  6. 41 ans, de 1931 à 1972.
  7. Pierre Assouline a été jusqu'à dire de lui qu'il était « l'œil du siècle ».
  8. Exposition du 12 février 2014 au 9 juin 2014.
  9. ^ elenco ufficiale decessi Francia, su deces.matchid.io. URL consultato il 22 agosto 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d e Clément Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson - Lo sguardo del secolo, ed. Contrasto 2008.
  11. ^ a b Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson - Biografia di uno sguardo, ed. Photology 2006.
  12. With the Lincoln Brigade. In: YouTube. Abgerufen am 20. April 2013.
  13. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ute Eskildsen, Agnès Sire: Scrap Book. Steidl Verlag, 2006, ISBN 3-86521-266-2, Vorwort von Agnès Sire.
  14. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Auf der Suche nach dem rechten Augenblick, Edition Christian Pixis. Berlin und München, 1998, S. 17
  15. Arthur Miller über Henri Cartier-Bresson in: Wer sind Sie, Henri Cartier-Bresson? Martin-Gropius-Bau, München, Schirmer und Mosel, 2004

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