Today part 3/5 on the founders of the Magnum photographic agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on the 22nd of August 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, as the oldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, his mother’s family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy, where he spent part of his childhood. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris and were able to provide him with financial support to develop his interests in photography in a more independent manner than many of his contemporaries.
As a young boy, Cartier-Bresson owned a Box Brownie, using it for taking holiday snapshots; he later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was introduced to oil painting by his uncle Louis, but the lessons were were cut short when said uncle died in World War I. He attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students to attend Lycée Condorcet, one of the best secondary school in France.
In 1927, Cartier-Bresson entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. Lhote took his pupils to the Louvre to study classical artists and to Parisian galleries to study contemporary art. Cartier-Bresson’s interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissance—of masterpieces of Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Cartier-Bresson often regarded Lhote as his teacher of “photography without a camera.”
Although Cartier-Bresson gradually began to get restless under Lhote’s “rule-laden” approach to art, his rigorous theoretical training would later help him to confront and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe, but each had a different view on the direction photography should take. Cartier-Bresson became very interested in the The Surrealist movement (founded in 1924). The historian Peter Galassi explains:
The Surrealists approached photography … with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual…The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
Cartier-Bresson matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political environment. He was aware of the concepts and theories mentioned, but could not find a way of expressing this imaginatively in his paintings. He was very frustrated with his experiments and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works.
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied English, art and literature, and became bilingual. In 1930, stationed at Le Bourget, near Paris, he completed his mandatory service in the French Army. A few years after he travelled to the Ivory Coast, surviving by hunting and selling the kills. Although he took a portable camera (smaller than a Brownie Box) with him, only seven photographs survived the tropics.
The photograph ‘Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika’ by Martin Munkacsi inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye. The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. He enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography — the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He said, “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to ‘trap’ life.”He photographed in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. It would be years before he photographed in his native France extensively.
In 1934 Cartier-Bresson met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin who was called “Chim” because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin later changed his name to David Seymour. Through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa. The three shared a studio in the early 1930s and Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson,
“Don’t keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don’t fidget. Get moving!”
Cartier-Bresson travelled to the United States in 1935 with an invitation to exhibit his work at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery. He shared display space with fellow photographers Walker Evans and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar, gave him a fashion assignment, but he fared poorly since he had no idea how to direct or interact with the models. Nevertheless, Snow was the first American editor to publish Cartier-Bresson’s photographs in a magazine.
Cartier-Bresson’s first photojournalistic photos to be published came in 1937 when he covered the coronation of King George VI, for the French weekly Regards. He focused on the new monarch’s adoring subjects lining the London streets, and took no pictures of the king. His photo credit read “Cartier”, as he was hesitant to use his full family name.
In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married a Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. They lived in a fourth-floor servants’ flat at in Paris at 19, rue Danielle Casanova, a large studio with a small bedroom, kitchen and bathroom where Cartier-Bresson developed film. Between 1937 and 1939 Cartier-Bresson worked as a photographer for the French Communists’ evening paper, Ce Soir. With Chim and Capa, Cartier-Bresson was a leftist, but he did not join the French Communist party.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, he joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. During the Battle of France, in June 1940 at St. Dié in the Vosges Mountains, he was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labour under the Nazis. He twice tried and failed to escape from the prison camp, and was punished by solitary confinement. His third escape was successful and he hid on a farm in Touraine before getting false papers that allowed him to travel in France. In France, he worked for the underground, aiding other escapees and working secretly with other photographers to cover the Occupation and then the Liberation of France. In 1943, he dug up his beloved Leica camera, which he had buried in farmland near Vosges.
In spring 1947, Cartier-Bresson, with Robert Capa, David Seymour, and George Rodger founded Magnum Photos. Capa’s brainchild, Magnum was a cooperative picture agency owned by its members. The team split photo assignments among the members. Rodger, who had quit Life in London after covering World War II, would cover Africa and the Middle East. Chim, who spoke most European languages, would work in Europe. Cartier-Bresson would be assigned to India and China. Vandivert, who had also left Life, would work in America, and Capa would work anywhere that had an assignment. Maria Eisner managed the Paris office and Rita Vandivert, Vandivert’s wife, managed the New York office and became Magnum’s first president. Magnum’s mission was to “feel the pulse” of the times and some of its first projects were People Live Everywhere, Youth of the World, Women of the World and The Child Generation. Magnum aimed to use photography in the service of humanity, and provided arresting, widely viewed images.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book Images à la sauvette, whose English edition was titled The Decisive Moment. It included a portfolio of 126 of his photos from the East and the West. The book’s cover was drawn by Henri Matisse. For his 4,500-word philosophical preface, Cartier-Bresson took his keynote text from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz:
“Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif” (“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”).
Cartier-Bresson applied this to his photographic style. He said:
“Photographier: c’est dans un même instant et en une fraction de seconde reconnaître un fait et l’organisation rigoureuse de formes perçues visuellement qui expriment et signifient ce fait” (“Photography is simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact”).
“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. “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,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Capa died in 1954 after stepping on a land mine in Indo-China, and Chim was shot in Egypt two years later. Cartier-Bresson’s photography took him to many places on the globe—China, Mexico, Canada, the United States, India, Japan, Soviet Union and many other countries. He became the first Western photographer to photograph “freely” in the post-war Soviet Union. Cartier-Bresson withdrew as a principal of Magnum (which still distributed his photographs) in 1966 to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes. In 1967, he was divorced from his first wife of 30 years, Ratna “Elie”. In 1968, he began to turn away from photography and return to his passion for drawing and painting. He admitted that perhaps he had said all he could through photography. He married Magnum photographer Martine Franck, thirty years younger than himself, in 1970. The couple had a daughter, Mélanie, in May 1972.
Cartier-Bresson retired from photography in the early 1970s and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait; he said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out. He returned to drawing and painting.
In 2003, he created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation with his wife and daughter to preserve and share his legacy.
Cartier-Bresson died in Montjustin (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France) on August 3, 2004, at age 95. No cause of death was announced. He was buried in the cemetery of Montjustin, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France. He was survived by his wife, Martine Franck, and daughter, Mélanie.
Cartier-Bresson exclusively used Leica 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with normal 50 mm lenses or occasionally a wide-angle for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera’s chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white films and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph almost by stealth to capture the events. No longer bound by a huge 4×5 press camera or an awkward medium format twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called “the velvet hand [and] the hawk’s eye.” He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as “[i]mpolite…like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand.”
He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color. He disliked developing or making his own prints.He said: “I’ve never been interested in the process of photography, never, never. Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing.”
The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.
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