Arguably the supreme master of candid photography, and one of the earliest adopters of the 35mm format, Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB for short) is far and away one of the most storied and legendary image-makers in the entire history of photography. We honor him and his legacy this week, and thank him for all that he has done for our craft.
Born in France to a wealthy family (he was the first of 5 children), Cartier-Bresson was destined to break the mold of expectations set before him by his parents. He did not want to be a part of the family business, nor did he want to fall prey to the bourgeois attitudes & lifestyles that seemed to dominate his family’s station. However, given their position, this provided a distinct advantage for HCB as they were able to financially support him as he developed his interests (and talents) on his own independent schedule. It’s also worth noting that photography was not his first venture into the world of the arts, no, he made an unsuccessful attempt to learn music when he was rather young, and was soon afterwards introduced to oil painting by his uncle (who unfortunately died during World War I). By 1927, HCB was enrolled in a private art school where he was exposed to all of the new modern art-forms that were beginning to develop during this era. He did experience photography during this time, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1930′s that he became truly motivated to pursue it.
He was inspired by a photograph taken in 1930 by Martin Munkacsi (a Hungarian Photojournalist) of three black children that were just on the verge of becoming total silhouettes running towards the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika. This spontaneous moment exuded freedom, grace and joy of life to HCB. After experiencing this new enlightenment in the power of photography he had 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.”
That moment is what captivated HCB to take photography seriously, to the effect that he stopped painting all together. This is also the point in his timeline when he would get his first Leica camera, which would ultimately form the most perfect symbiotic relationship between a photographer and a particular brand of camera (to this day, when I think of Leica, I think of HCB). This new small camera would allow him to document life’s fleeting milliseconds in the most candid of ways; he was able to capture the world as it actually was.
By the time World War II had enveloped the globe in conflict in 1939, HCB had joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Photography unit. In the middle of 1940, Henri was captured by the Nazis and taken as a prisoner of war (but not before he literally buried his Leica in the farmlands near the Vosges Mountains where he was captured). He was held captive for 35 months. He made three attempts to escape the labor camp where he was being held, and would succeed on the third attempt, managing to make it to a farm in Touraine where he was able to hide until he could get forged paperwork allowing him to travel freely in France. Post-escape he worked with the underground, helping others to escape, and documenting the occupation of the Nazis and subsequent liberation of France. He would later return in 1943 to the farm where he buried his camera and reclaim his treasured Leica.
In the spring of 1947, HCB would join with four other renowned photographers to form Magnum Photos, with their goal to maintain it as a co-op picture agency actually owned by the photographers (a first of its kind). Through his career at Magnum, HCB would further develop his uncanny ability for capturing “the decisive moment”; with an almost other-worldly sense, he was able to capture moments on film that many would never have seen. He was not much of a “technical” shooter, often favoring just his old collapsible 50mm lens set at f8 and snapping away to the end of the roll; in fact, one rarely sees images from HCB with excessively shallow depth of field or gobs of bokeh, no, he preferred a deep plane of focus in his work.
HCB would continue to photograph until he decided to retire from photography all together in 1975 to make a return to drawing and painting. His later years were devoted to his painting work, even recanting his days as a photographer as “a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s technique as a photographer has become something of a legend in and of itself; his profound connection with the Leica cameras and 50mm lenses (wide angles were used on occasion for landscapes) allowed to be stealthy and nimble as he prowled the streets with his ever-watching eyes, ready to capture the next moment. He always worked with black and white film (I’ve heard he did experiment with color once or twice but it didn’t go so well), and never used a flash, considering them rude and abrasive. He also firmly believed that one should compose their images in the viewfinder, and not in the darkroom (that sounds an awful lot like what I say today, except you would replace “Darkroom” with “Photoshop”). Nearly all of his displayed images were 100% frames, meaning no cropping. He did crop on occasion, when it was necessary (as was the case with one of his most famous images), but would otherwise include the very edges of the film border to showcase the entire frame.
One particular aspect I truly respect about HCB was his disinterest in the process, and only caring about what the camera allowed him to express with his images. Too often these days we get wrapped up in the latest gear and technology that we forget about the point of photography in the first place, creating memorable images.
HCB’s work has been on display in countless galleries and assembled in piles of books, each one more soulful and inspiring than the last. Some top recommendations are: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image & The World, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer and Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century (A recent book published for his posthumous show at MoMa). There are many others out there as well, and if you happen to come across a copy of “The Decisive Moment” for a cheap price, BUY IT.
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