Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Life in the Street
There are many photographers I admire greatly, but above all my favourite is the French master, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Born in Northern France on 22nd August 1908, Cartier-Bresson was raised in a financially comfortable environment in which his interest in photography was supported by his parents. He had a Box Brownie at an early age and would take holiday snaps with it. He was influenced by his Uncle Louis, a professional painter. His early life was dominated by a fascination for modern art as well as renaissance forms and he later considered his interest in these paintings as his introduction to “photography without a camera”.
As a young man, Cartier-Bresson became interested in the revolutionary surrealist movement of the early 1920s. Artists began to reject classical forms of composition, preferring instead to create something more surrealistic and abstract in the hope of revealing various unpredictable meanings and interpretations. Becoming frustrated with his own attempts at painting, Cartier-Bresson used this revolutionary surrealist thinking and the political environment of the times, as his inspiration for a life in photography that would become unparalleled.
In the late 1920s, Henri studied at Cambridge University and became fluent in the English language. This was followed by a brief spell in the French army, fulfilling his national service obligations. After several years in The Ivory Coast, he returned to France and was influenced heavily by a photograph he saw by Martin Munkacsi entitled ‘Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika’.
Speaking about the photograph he 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 by 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.”
So began a life of formidable photography that would culminate in Cartier-Bresson being one of the most revered and celebrated photographers of all time. The ability that a photograph has to fix eternity in an instant, this is what appealed to Cartier-Bresson. As a soldier might think of his rifle as an extension of his arm, Henri saw his Leica camera as an extension of his eye. Disguising his camera as best he could by painting the shiny metallic parts with black paint, he set out to capture a world in motion exactly how it appears, without constructing or creating anything artificial. Anonymity was key to his ability to capture his subjects in a natural and unaltered composition, revealing the world and its mechanisms as they truly are, at least for that finite second in time.
Henri began to get exhibitions in the early 1930s and it was his friend and mentor Robert Capa, who advised him to become a photojournalist rather than a surrealist photographer. In the next few years, Cartier-Bresson travelled around Europe and in the United States. Here he was hired for a fashion shoot and published in Harper’s Bazaar. It was not until 1937 that his first work as a photojournalist was published. These were pictures of King George VI’s coronation. He did not take any photos of the King, instead he shot the crowds that lined the streets.
Such was his style, much of his work was very personal and focuses on anonymous subjects; real people in the real world. However he also photographed some of the Twentieth Century’s most notable figures; Ghandi, Camus, Sartre, Faulkner, Monroe, Malcolm X. As the famous painters of the past had captured people and places in their paintings, the relatively new media of photography was beginning to see its own renaissance. The ever more portable technology allowed photographers to access places and angles that were impractical in the past. Combined with an artistic way of thinking and a sheer talent for a great composition, the like of which Cartier-Bresson possessed, some of the most striking, influential and poignant images ever seen would be produced over the coming decades. During World War II he joined the army and enlisted in the Film and Photo unit. In 1940 he was captured by the Germans and spent nearly three years in a POW camp. He escaped in 1943 and acquired false papers allowing him to travel around without arousing suspicion. He then worked with the underground movement and helped others to escape. He also covered the liberation of Paris. After the war, he published his first book ‘The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson’ and in 1947 he formed the cooperative agency Magnum with Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger. Their mission was to use photography to serve humanity and they aimed to capture the essence of the age.
It was his photos of Ghandi in 1948 and his coverage of the last days of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 that brought Cartier-Bresson international fame. He published another book in 1952 and had by now, truly come in to his own as both a photographer and an artist. Having moved away from any previous aspirations to paint, he said of his art form: “Photography is not like painting…There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative”. This is also where his greatest talent lay, his feeling for the moment was unparalleled, combined with an abstract eye for composition, it is my opinion that Cartier-Bresson produced the most inspiring images ever produced.
Henri travelled freely all over the globe, arguably during the most turbulent times of the century. He spent thirty years on assignments for Life magazine and other publications. In the 1970s he retired from photography and all but ceased to shoot any more work for the rest of his life. He returned to painting and drawing, citing photography as only ever being a means to facilitate his passion for painting. However, it is not as a painter that he will be remembered, although artistically speaking he is equally as important as Van Gogh, Rembrandt or even Picasso. He used the camera like a paint brush and palette and had a gift for capturing more than just a photograph. In a world now swamped in a swathe of imagery, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s body of work stands out. His pictures draw you in and tell a story, they inspire creative imaginings and provoke discussion. Managing to capture more than a moment is a very unique talent, like all artists, photographers have their own styles and methods, but very few capture that decisive moment like Cartier-Bresson managed to.
Henri Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 at the respectable age of 95. Having travelled all over the world he witnessed some of history’s most significant events, he photographed some of the most influential people and became renowned in his field and respected by some of the greatest minds of the times. I will leave the last words to the great man himself…
“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”
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