Henri Cartier-Bresson was a shy Frenchman
who elevated "snap shooting" to the level of a refined
and disciplined art. His sharp-shooter’s ability to
catch "the decisive moment," his precise eye for
design, his self-effacing methods of work, and his literate
comments about the theory and practice of photography made
him a legendary figure among contemporary photojournalists.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908, in Chanteloupe, France,
of prosperous middle-class parents. He owned a Box Brownie
as a boy, using it for taking holiday snapshots, and later
experimented with a 3 X 4 view camera. But he was also interested
in painting and studied for two years in a Paris studio. This
early training in art helped develop the subtle and sensitive
eye for composition, which was one of his greatest assets
as a photographer.
In 1931, at the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson spent a year as a hunter
in the West African bush. Catching a case of backwater fever, he
returned to France to convalesce. It was at this time, in Marseille,
that he first truly discovered photography. He obtained a Leica
and began snapping a few pictures with it. It was a pivotal experience.
A new world, a new kind of seeing, spontaneous and unpredictable,
opened up to him through the narrow rectangle of the 35 mm viewfinder.
His imagination caught fire. He recalls how he excitedly "prowled
the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce,
determined to ‘trap’ life, to preserve life in the act
Thus began one of the most fruitful collaborations between man and
machine in the history of photography. He remained devoted to the
35 mm camera throughout his career. The speed, mobility, the large
number of exposures per loading, and, above all, the unobtrusiveness
of the little camera perfectly fitted his shy, quicksilver personality.
Before long he was handling its controls as automatically as an
expert racing driver shifts gears. The camera itself, in his own
famous phrase, became an "extension of the eye".
When World War II erupted, Cartier-Bresson served briefly in the
French Army and was captured by the Germans during the Battle of
France. After two unsuccessful tries, he escaped from the camp where
he was held as a prisoner of war, and worked with the underground
until the war’s end.
Resuming his interrupted career as a photojournalist, he helped
form the Magnum picture agency in 1947. Assignments for major magazines
would take him on global travels, across Europe and the United States,
to India, Russia and China. Many books of Cartier-Bresson photographs
were published in the 50’s and 60’s, the most famous
being ‘The Decisive Moment’ (1952). A major milestone
in his career was a massive, 400-print retrospective exhibition,
which toured the United States in 1960.
"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject,"
he wrote in ‘The Decisive Moment’. "The little
human detail can become a leitmotif." Most of his photography
is a collection of such little, human details; concerned images
with universal meaning and suggestion. He lived in a haunted world
where mundane facts, a reflection in a mud-puddle, an image chalked
on a wall, the slant of a black-robed figure against mist, radiate
significance at once familiar and only half-consciously grasped.
His was an anti-romantic poetry of vision, which finds beauty in
"things as they are," in the reality of here and now.
All his great pictures were taken with the kind of equipment owned
by many amateur photographers: 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped
with a normal 5Omm lens or occasionally a telephoto for landscapes.
Along with Dr. Erich Salomon and Alfred Eisenstaedt, he was a pioneer
in available light photojournalism, and would no sooner intrude
flash or flood into his pictures than would a fly fisherman toss
rocks into a pool where he hoped to catch a prize trout.
By having so skillfully exploited the camera’s ability to
transfix a moment in time’s flow, Cartier-Bresson has left
us a treasure of images. We can, through his eyes, see the world
a little more clearly, and find truth and beauty where we had not
guessed they existed.