Henri Cartier-Bresson “L’amour tout court” (“Just Plain Love” 2001)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was a French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism, an early adopter of 35 mm format, and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the “street photography” style that has influenced generations of photographers that followed.
Trained as a painter, he began his career in photography in 1931 on a trip to the Ivory Coast. He was one of the first photographers to shoot in the 35mm format with a Leica camera, and helped to develop the photojournalistic “street photography” style that influenced generations of photographers to come.
It was there on the Côte d’Ivoire that he contracted blackwater fever, which nearly killed him. Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson recuperated in Marseille in 1931 and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. He became inspired by a photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi
Cartier-Bresson said: “The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.”
The photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.”. He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye.
Cartier-Bresson is well known for his concept of the “decisive moment” in photography. He defined this moment as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression
During his photographic career Cartier-Bresson photographed all over the world – Mexico, Canada, USA, Europe, India, Burma, Pakistan, Indonesia, Africa, Burma, China, Japan, Cuba, and the USSR, among other places. He also photographed many famous personalities and artists of the 20th century, including Matisse, Picasso, Coco Chanel, Truman Capote, and Gandhi. His interest in the visual arts also extended to film – he made films with Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker and André Zvoboda and a documentary on Republican Spain (1937).
During the Second World War Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner by the Germans and escaped, then photographed the occupation and liberation of France. During this time rumors reached the USA that he had been killed, and the Museum of Modern Art began to prepare a “posthumous” show. Cartier-Bresson later spent a year in the US helping to prepare this show.
In 1947 Cartier-Bresson co-founded the photographic cooperative Magnum along with fellow photographers Robert Capa, George Rodger, David Seymour, Bill Vandivert and others.
Valuing his anonymity as a tool for capturing decisive moments with his camera, Cartier-Bresson did not like to be photographed, and shot with a Leica camera which was smaller, quieter and less intrusive than other cameras.
Cartier-Bresson retired from photography in the early 1970s and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait; he said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out. He returned to drawing and painting. After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through photography, he said, “All I care about these days is painting — photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”
Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the art world’s most unassuming personalities. He disliked publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. He hated to be photographed and treasured his privacy above all. Photographs of Cartier-Bresson do exist, but they are scant. When he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he held a paper in front of his face to avoid being photographed. He did recall that he once confided his innermost secrets to a Paris taxi driver, certain that he would never meet the man again.
The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation was created by Cartier-Bresson and his wife and daughter in 2002 to preserve and share his legacy.
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