Mikael Moreira - Observations on Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson


June 23, 2016

To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life, said Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most talented and most admired photographers to have ever lived. Cartier-Bresson was a true master of candid and street photography and an artist who has transformed photojournalism into an art form. He was one of the earliest users of 35 mm film as well as the father of the term decisive moment, which was also the title of his first major best-seller book. Bresson’s work has been having an outstanding influence on many street and portrait photographers and his great reputation made his one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Bresson’s Childhood and Interest in Painting

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in the early 20th century in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne in France. He was the oldest of five children from a wealthy family – his father was a textile manufacturer and he was quite successful in his career. Yet, Cartier-Bresson family was quite modest and they have their own frugal ways of living and spending money. The artist often used to say that his family used to leave an impression of poverty because of his father’s prudent use of money. When it comes to young Henri’s interest in visual arts, he was initially fascinated with paintings, particularly with surrealism. He was also a keen reader of philosophic literature and he used to enjoy works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels, and Marx as well as the poetry of Rimbaud and Mallarme. Creativity and love for fine arts and literature were certainly inscribed in Bresson’s DNA - his great-grandfather was an artist, his uncle a famous printer, while his father had a talent for drawing. In his teenage years, Cartier-Bresson was a rebellious young man who was against his parent’s formal ways of living. Yet, the art remained the very center of his life, despite his curiosity about politics and communism. In 1927, Bresson has enrolled in a two-year painting program under the noted early cubist André Lhote. After the graduation from this program, he moved to Cambridge University, because he was very interested in deeper, more extensive study of art and literature. While studying art, Cartier-Bresson has shown admiration not only for modern pieces but also for the classic works of the Renaissance masters such as Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca.

Socializing with the Surrealists

Cartier-Bresson had an ambivalent approach when it comes to surrealism and teachings of his tutor Lhote. Bresson considered his approach too formal, too rigorous and rule-laden. However, after he got engaged in photography, he became aware of the fact that knowing the basic rules of painting can help identify and resolve issues of artistic style and composition in photography. In the 1920s, various schools of photographic realism were becoming popular throughout Europe but each of these schools had a different view on the rules they followed. It wasn’t until the creation of the surrealist movement in 1924 that these rules became more universal. Cartier-Bresson was strongly interested in this movement and he started socializing with the circle of surrealists who was often sitting at Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. In this café, he had intense conversations with many leading protagonists of surrealism. Cartier-Bresson was particularly impressed by the surrealist technique of introducing the subconscious realm into the visual arts, both painting and photography. The surrealists had a refreshing knack for the unusual, unintended and unpredictable contexts. Partially thanks to his time spent at Café Cyrano, Cartier-Bresson matured philosophically and artistically. However, because his young mind was torn apart between so many different ideas and approaches, he still couldn’t find his own self-expression and he destroyed many of his early paintings.

Beginning of Bresson’s Career in Street Photography

Cartier-Bresson's life in the late 20s and early 30s was very adventurous and unpredictable. In 1929, he was placed under house arrest for hunting without a proper license. Around the same time, he met an American expatriate Harry Crosby, who helped Bresson and got him released from his home arrest for a couple of days. Both Crosby and Bresson were photography enthusiasts and Crosby gave Bresson his first camera. Later on, two of them became close friends and they used to spend their time together taking, printing and analyzing pictures. Crosby and his wife Caresse were known for their open-minded sexual behavior and Cartier-Bresson started an intense affair with Caresse that lasted for a few years. In 1931, Caresse decided to break up with Bresson, leaving him utterly broken-hearted. In the meantime, Harry Crosby has committed suicide. Because of this tragic course of events, Bresson started to dream about escaping his painful everyday life. Inspired by Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, he was up for finding an adventure. He took a trip to Côte d'Ivoire in French colonial Africa and made a living there by shooting local animals and selling them to African villagers. In a way, his great hunting skills were helpful in the development of his candid photography approach. During his stay on the Côte d'Ivoire, he contracted a dangerous blackwater fever and hardly survived. Even though Bresson took a conveniently small camera to Côte d'Ivoire, just a couple of his photographs survived the tropical heat.

Cartier-Bresson's work contained such strongly original quality that his rise as a photographer was unbelievably rapid. By the mid-1930s, he already had his early work shown at important exhibitions in Mexico, New York, and Madrid. His first solo exhibition was held at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, followed by another show at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934 in Mexico, he had a two-men exhibition with Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Bresson’s images, unique in their candid nature, started to open up the possibilities and ideas when it comes to street photography and photojournalism, which were not overly popular before Bresson’s major influence. During one of his exhibits in New York in 1935, Cartier-Bresson made friends with Paul Strand, who was another innovative photographer eager to experiment with filmmaking. Bresson was impressed with his work so much that he even abandoned photography for a while and became the assistant of the French filmmaker Jean Renoir. Cartier-Bresson worked on many of his movies, including his most famous work from 1939, called La Règle Du Jeu. However, Cartier-Bresson wasn’t particularly interested in directing feature movies – instead, he had a greater talent when it comes to documentary approach and showing real life stories.

Joining the French Army in the World War II

During the World War II, Cartier-Bresson was a part of the French Army in the Film and Photo unit. In June 1940, he was captured by German soldiers and held prisoner for 35 months. He had to do forced labor under the Nazis and he tried to escape twice, unfortunately without success. Consequently, he was punished by the solitary confinement. However, his third escape turned successful and he was hiding on a farm until he obtained some false papers and managed to return to France. Once he arrived back to his home country, he started working for the French underground in order to help the other escapees. He was also collaborating with and working other photographers and he covered the crucial, historical events, such as the Liberation of France. Around the end of the war, Bresson made a documentary, The Return (La Retour) about the escape and return of French prisoners as well as the issue of displaced persons. Thanks to this documentary, the Museum of Modern Art organized a major retrospective of Bresson’s work in 1947. Around the same time, the photographer has published his first book, called The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Foundation of Magnum Photos

Magnum Photos, an international photographic cooperative with offices throughout the world was founded in 1947 by Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger. Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, said Cartier-Bresson about this eminent organization. The team of splendid photographers was sharing photo assignments among the members of Magnum Photos. In 1948, Cartier-Bresson was assigned to cover Gandhi’s funeral in India, which brought him an international appraisal. He also photographed the last years of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, covering the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic. When it comes to his Chinese series, he also did a reportage the last Imperial eunuchs in Beijing. After his mission in China was completed, he traveled to Indonesia and documented their gaining of independence from the Dutch influence. In 1950, he visited the South India to shoot Sri Ramana Maharishi and Sri Ramana. Overall, the mission of Magnum Photos was to cover the most important world events, to feel the pulse of the ongoing affairs and issues. They wanted photography to become the service of humanity and some of their most noted projects were called People Live Everywhere, Youth of the World, Women of the World and The Child Generation.

Meaning of Bresson’s Decisive Moment

To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy, wrote Bresson in his legendary book called The Decisive Moment, originally published in France in 1952. We can discover the origin of the term decisive moment in the book’s preface, which opens with a citation of Cardinal de Retz - There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment. In this book which became a best-seller and a sort of Bible for photographers and photography enthusiasts, Henri Cartier-Bresson described his understanding of the art of photography with all of its formal aspects such as color, technique, composition, and sequence. It is known that Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment has been prone to various misinterpretations and it remained quite controversial. Bresson claimed that that composition of a photograph is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. Consequently, a photographer doesn’t really create or superimpose composition as an afterthought. According to Bresson, a composition must have its own preexisting inevitability. A photographer must notice the moment when all the elements in motion are set in balance and then seize upon this immobile equilibrium of multiple elements. This very moment of immobility is a decisive moment.

Photographic Techniques and Style

Bresson’s approach to photography is extensively described in his books and he is one of the most quoted photographers. 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, said the photographer. Cartier-Bresson's approach remain much the same throughout his career. He never used zoom lenses but those of fixed focal length instead, he disliked using artificial lights and dark room effects. He even tried to avoid any kind of cropping. In a way, he was a naturalist when it comes to photography, making sure that all the elements he wanted to include are present in the precise moment the image was taken, in line with his decisive moment philosophy . Bresson’s equipment was surprisingly light – he used only 50mm prime lens and a longer 90mm lens, if needed to concentrate on details. His camera of choice was a Leica 35 mm rangefinder which he often used to wrap with a black tape in order to make it less visible when shooting on the streets. Thanks to his fast black and white film and high-quality prime lenses, he was able to photograph anything he wanted and stay virtually invisible. Leica models were really lightweight and they offered Bresson a freedom. He wasn’t bound by any heavy photo gear which used to be the standard choice for photographers, such as medium format twin-lens reflex cameras. Bresson also used to avoid using flash, consider it rude. When it comes to printing techniques, all of Bresson’s pieces were printed at their original full-frame size, without any cropping or similar darkroom manipulations. Besides these basic requirements that ought to be followed, Bresson disliked the process of developing or making his own prints. He didn’t have much of an interest in any details related to processing photography because for him the main reason to take photos was to express what he saw, not to ameliorate a specific scene in any way. It is interesting to mention that he had a small ritual when it comes to testing new lenses. He would shoot ducks in public parks for this occasion and call the process baptism of the lens, which was admittedly his only superstition.

Bresson’s Career in the 60s and Later

From 1968 onward, Bresson wasn’t so much engaged in photography anymore. He quit Magnum Photos and started to concentrate on drawing and painting, just like in the earliest days of his career. He wasn’t too much into doing interviews and most of time he was reclusive, refusing to talk much about his splendid career that spans over few decades. He buried himself in his notebooks and he enjoyed sketching out landscapes and making figurines. In 2003, together with his wife Martine and his daughter Melanie, he created the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, meant to preserve his entire body of work. The artist has received an extraordinary number of prizes, awards and honorary doctorates, despite his shy nature and his desire to stay away from being in the limelight. Bresson died at his home in Provence in 2004, a few weeks before his 96th birthday. Thanks to the creation of Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, the artist had already taken important steps towards securing his extraordinary legacy.

Legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Bresson’s legacy is a truly priceless treasure. The artist has spent more than three decades on assignments for Life and other eminent magazines. He traveled often and documented some of the greatest, most important events of the 20th century — he took pictures of Spanish civil war, the liberation of Paris in 1944, the student riot in Paris in 1968, the fall of the Kuomintang in China, the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi and even endless deserts of northern Africa. Along the way, the subject of his portraits were the greatest writers and visual artists such as Camus, Picasso, Colette, Matisse, Pound, and Giacometti. In addition to his career in photography, Bresson was also an avid filmmaker ever since the 1930’s, when he studied cinema with Paul Strand in New York. He assisted the filming of Jean Renoir's La vie est à nous and Une partie de champagne in 1936, as well as La Règle du Jeu in 1936. Bresson himself has directed five movies - Victoire de la vie in 1937, L’Espagne Vivra in 1938, La Retour in 1945, Impressions of California in 1970 and Southern Exposures in 1971. Bresson’s photographs are also known to be influential in the development of cinema verite movies, such as the National Film Board of Canada's pioneering pieces. Bresson’s 1958 series called Candid Eyes was the greatest inspiration for such movies.

Because Bresson treasured his privacy so much, those rare photographs of him are true gems. Even when he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he put a paper in front of his face to avoid cameras. In one of his interview, Cartier-Bresson stated that he didn’t necessarily hate to be photographed, he just felt embarrassed and being famous wasn’t his natural state of mind. He was known to be a very secretive person and he believed that what was going on beneath the surface of his personality had to remain private. Nowadays, Bresson’s work can be found in the most famous museum collections worldwide. However, only a couple of museums were privileged to receive the Master Collection of his work, which consists of 385 prints. These museums are Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, De Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, The University of Fine Arts in Osaka and Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, United Kingdom. Cartier Bresson’s life was a subject of numerous documentaries, starting as early as the late 50. In 1959, the first documentary about his life was filmed by Gjon Mili. It lasted only two minutes. The latest three documentaries were filmed in 2001, Henri Cartier-Bresson: L’amour tout court by Raphaël Byrne, then in 2003, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Biographie d’un regard by Heinz Butler and finally in 2005, Une journée dans l’atelier d’Henri Cartier-Bresson, by Caroline Thiénot Barbey.

Unparalleled yet Shy Genius of Candid Photography

Cartier-Bresson, despite his majestic talent, is regarded an utterly modest photographer who disliked publicity and showed shyness ever since he had to hide from the Nazis in the World War II. Even though he took many portraits of famous personas, his own face was little known to the wider public. Thanks to this lack of desire for fame and glory and by staying relatively unknown, he could work his silent magic on the streets, undisturbed and free, creating thousands of photographs which are nowadays considered as some of the most valuable pieces of candid and portrait photography ever taken.

Henri Cartier-Bresson lived and worked in France.
Featured image: Observations on Henri Cartier-Bresson. Photo by Mikael Moreira, via flickr.com

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