Although he spent only a third of his time on Earth working as a photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson achieved a great deal in that time. He led a very interesting life that began with his birth in 1908. As part of an upper-middle class family, Cartier-Bresson spent time in both Paris and in Normandy during his childhood years. He received a basic education at the École Fénelon but learned conversational English from his governess, Miss Kitty. Henri Cartier-Bresson unsuccessfully studied music before turning his hand to art. He even received a Brownie camera as a child but it wasn’t until later that he discovered photography as an effective means of artistic expression. However, the death of his uncle, a gifted painter, during the First World War put a damper on his artistic studies.
Despite the fact that his family ran a successful textile business, Cartier-Bresson was not inclined to follow in their footsteps. Fortunately, his family supported him. He subsequently studied at the Lhote Academy, where the main instructor attempted to get his students to meld traditional French style with more modern perspectives. Cartier-Bresson wasn’t really interested in following the rules imposed on him and began looked for other outlets to express his creativity. He eventually tried his hand at paintings in the Surrealistic style but was unsatisfied with his efforts and destroyed most of the results. From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended Cambridge where he studied art and literature. It was at this point that he also became fluent in the English language.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographer is now showing at Villa Reale di Monza in Italy. The exhibition, which is open until February 26th 2017, presents Henri Cartier-Bresson’s poetic photographs from his early surrealist period, his documentary work from the Paris resistance movement as well as series and photographs from his travels of the 60s and 70s. PHOTO: Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. Paris, France. 1932. © #HenriCartierBresson/#MagnumPhotos
The years that followed saw Cartier-Bresson doing his duty as a conscript in the French Army. Even so, he ended up being put under house arrest for hunting without a license. Fortunately, an American expat and fellow photography enthusiast named Harry Cosby convinced Cartier-Bresson’s supervisor to release him for a few days. Crosby then brought his new acquaintance to his nearby estate and gave him a camera. However, for Cartier-Bresson the main attraction seemed to be the lady of the house, Caresse Crosby. Their affair lasted for about three years. When it ended, Cartier-Bresson felt he needed a change of scenery. He went off to Africa where he made his living as a game hunter. Unfortunately, Cartier-Bresson ended up nearly dying of blackwater fever, a disease that comes about as a complication from malaria.
"I used to love to edit alongside Cartier-Bresson" John Morris discusses his career as a photo editor, muses on the role photography has to play in war, and offers some practical photo-editing advice in our new feature on Magnum. Link in bio. PHOTO: Magnum Photos. Henri Cartier-Bresson. French photographer. 47th Street, New York. 1959. © #ReneBurri/#MagnumPhotos
Once he’d recovered, Cartier-Bresson began to delve more seriously into photography and acquired a Leica camera to further this pursuit. He covered the small camera with black paint so that it was even harder for his subjects to see. Around this same period, Cartier-Bresson met Robert Capa and David Seymour, who would become his good friends. By 1935, he was in New York working on a photography exhibit. However, his experiences there led him to briefly try his hand at making movies. In 1937, he achieved his first breakthrough in the photojournalism world when his pictures of the crowds attending the royal coronations were published in Regards. Later that year, Cartier-Bresson married a dancer named Ratna Mohini, who was called Elie by her close companions. They lived together in Paris for some time. During this period, Cartier-Bresson made ends meet by working for the Ce Soir newspaper along with his friends Capa and Seymour.
Cartier-Bresson’s second photography book, “The Decisive Moment” (Images à la Sauvette) was published in 1952 once he’d returned to Europe. This work illustrated his ability to capture the split-second where an image was at its best. However, Cartier-Bresson was far more interested in showcasing moment than sprucing up the pictures he’d taken. Little if any editing work was done on the images. In fact, most of his photos show a black frame around them that is created by the negative itself. Cartier-Bresson often used the same cameras that he had been working with all his life but he would occasionally add new lens to his repertoire. He tested these devices by taking them to nearby parks so that he could photograph the ducks. Over his decades-long career as a photographer, Cartier-Bresson took thousands of images. Yet snapshots of the man himself are few since he valued his privacy and didn’t want his image plastered all over the place. Given this fact, it’s no wonder that he thought it was rude to use a flash camera on unsuspecting individuals.
Cartier-Bresson’s photography was shown at prestigious venues such as Paris’ Louvre Museum in 1954 and plenty of books were published containing his works. He nonetheless continued traveling to many different places around the world during the 1940s and 1950s. However, by 1966, he had resigned as a principal photographer for Magnum Photos even though he was still an occasional participant in their endeavors. In 1967, Cartier-Bresson and his wife Elie divorced after having been together for exactly thirty years. During that same period, Cartier-Bresson began to limit his use of photography and return to the more traditional forms of artwork that he had previously enjoyed.
In 1970, he remarried Martine Franck. She was much younger than he was but remained a good photographer in her own right. In fact, she was one of the few female members of his collective. Two years later, their daughter Melanie was born. By this point, Cartier-Bresson had largely quit taking pictures. Perhaps this was because his wife Martine felt that his reputation was overshadowing her own work or perhaps he simply wanted a new outlet. In any case, Cartier-Bresson received his last photographic award (Novecento Premio) in 1986. The entire family later came together in 2003 to create the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation so that his photographs would be preserved. Cartier-Bresson himself died in 2004 at the age of 95, only a few weeks before his 96th birthday after a life well-lived.
Images à la Sauvette Exhibition
If you are in Paris - from January 11 April 23, 2017, you should visit the Henri Cartier-Bresson, Images à la Sauvette exhibition organised by Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2, Impasse Lebouis, 75014 Paris)
Images à la Sauvette is the fruit of joined efforts of a famous art publisher, Tériade, a talented photographer, a painter at the peak of his career, Matisse, and two American publishers, Simon and Schuster. From his beginnings, Cartier‑Bresson considers the book as the outcome of his work. In the thirties, he met the publisher of Verve, Tériade, who he would later likely acknowledge to be his mentor. They plan, at the time, to carry out a book project on large cities rough areas together with Eli Lotar, Bill Brandt and Brassaï, but this ambitious project will never see the light of day.