|Born in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, Cartier-Bresson studied painting and developed an early interest in Surrealism. In 1932, after spending a year in the Ivory Coast, Cartier-Bresson discovered the Leica camera, his camera of choice for the rest of his career. In 1933, he had his first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. He traveled to Eastern Europe and Mexico on assignment and later made films with Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker and André Zvoboda, and a documentary on the hospitals of Republican Spain, Victoire de la Vie (Return to Life).
Taken prisoner of war in 1940, he escaped in 1943 and subsequently set up an underground organization to assist prisoners and escapees. During this period he made portraits of artists such as Matisse, Rouault, Braque, Bonnard, and Claudel for Editions Braun. In 1945, he photographed the Liberation of Paris with a group of professional journalists before filming the documentary Le Retour (The Return). In 1947, he founded Magnum Photos with photojournalists Robert Capa, George Rodger, David Seymour and William Vandivert. He then spent three years traveling in Asia. He photographed Mahatma Gandhi just prior to his assassination; was in Indonesia when it formally declared its independence; and, traveled to China in 1949, witnessing the transition from the last days of Kuomintang rule through the early months of the People's Republic of China. In 1952, he returned to Europe where he published his first book, Images à la Sauvette (translated into English as The Decisive Moment). In 1954, he was the first foreign photographer admitted into the USSR. By 1968, he had begun to curtail his photographic activities, preferring to concentrate on drawing and painting.
Cartier-Bresson is best known for his concept of the “decisive moment” in photography. As he explained, "for me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.” Cartier-Bresson died in Cereste, in the southeast of France, August 3, 2004, a few weeks short of his 96th birthday. Many today consider him one of the founding fathers of photojournalism.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s legacy lives on at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, and Magnum Photos as well as prominent museums around the world.
Image: Martine Franck Henri Cartier-Bresson Drawing his Self-Portrait (1992)