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Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pioneering Photojournalist and Artist

August 22, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Considered among the best and most influential photojournalists of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson led an adventurous lifestyle that speaks to the breadth and character of his work.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's Early Days

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, a commune not far from Paris, France, and spent his childhood living with his family in an aristocratic Paris neighborhood. According to Photography-Now, Cartier-Bresson considered his family “socialist Catholics.”

He went to a Catholic school in Paris where “unsuccessful attempts to learn music” led to oil painting lessons from his uncle Louis, “a gifted painter.” Cartier-Bresson was only five years old at the time, but painting became a lifelong “obsession” for him.

He took to photography early as well, using a Box Brownie camera, and later a 3x4-inch view camera, to capture family holidays. Although his father expected Cartier-Bresson to join the family textile manufacturing business, the budding artist “was appalled by this prospect.”

According to Photography-Now, when he was 19 years old, Cartier-Bresson began attending “a private art school and the Lhote Academy,” led by “Cubist painter and sculptor Andre Lhote." Cartier-Bresson considered Lhote a “teacher of photography without a camera,” but grew to dislike the artist’s adherence to rules. Also around that time, a revolution had begun taking hold in the world of photography.

But Cartier-Bresson stuck to his writer and painter friends, becoming “passionately absorbed in Parisian avant-garde culture,” according to his obituary in The Guardian. This naturally led him to Africa, where some notable writers of the time had traveled. He learned to hunt, which, like photography, required good aim and a nimble firing finger. The Guardian reports that Cartier-Bresson took photos in Africa, but didn’t fully fall for photography until 1932, when he began using a 35mm Leica.

Cartier-Bresson's Notable Accomplishments

The Museum of Modern Art calls Cartier-Bresson “one of the most original, accomplished, influential, and beloved figures in the history of photography,” and contends that some of his work “helped define the creative potential of modern photography.”

His first museum show was in 1947 at MoMA. After that, along with Robert Capa and other photographers, Cartier-Bresson founded the Magnum photo agency. He went on to photograph independence movements in India and Indonesia, China’s revolution, post-Stalin Soviet Union, postwar America and shifting cultural realities in Europe for more than 25 years.

On Cartier-Bresson’s Web site, statements by the artist reveal his philosophies toward photography, calling the camera “a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” He discusses the necessity of discipline, and the “physical and intellectual joy” of getting a great shot. “It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis,” he said.

Cartier-Bresson was also remarkably humble. In an interview with Charlie Rose, recorded in July 2000, Cartier-Bresson said he doesn't consider himself a photographer. “I’m just a human being. Anybody sensitive is an artist,” he tells Rose. The interviewer observes that Cartier-Bresson doesn’t hang any of his photos in his home; he is only interested in shooting.

Unselfishness and humility seem to characterize Cartier-Bresson’s approach to his work. “You mustn’t want. You must be receptive. You don’t think even—the brain’s a bit dangerous,” he explains to Rose. Cartier-Bresson also calls himself an anarchist, and comments that “this present society is crumbling to pieces, and fast.” As for his motivation, Cartier-Bresson says he only wanted “to live.”

The Rest of the Story

Cartier-Bresson retired from professional photography in 1975. In 2003, he’d settled into a Paris apartment with his wife, photographer Martine Franck, and taken up drawing. “I never think about photography. It doesn’t interest me,” he told NPR.

Franck described her husband’s uncanny ability to find the most intriguing world events: “I think Henri had an innate intuition of what was going on in the world and what was important/”

Cartier-Bresson passed away on Aug. 3, 2004. His obituary in The Guardian details his meeting Gandhi, his book “The Decisive Moment" and his unusual feelings about photography.

A lengthy piece in The New York Times from 1995 follows Cartier-Bresson around Paris, capturing the artist at work and relaxing at home. Among the many insights revealed by writer Michael Kimmelman is Cartier-Bresson’s description of the “discipline and order” that characterize his seemingly very different photographs and drawings.

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