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Henri Cartier-Bresson – Decisive Moments

by David Fox

Widely considered as one of the leading artistic forces and major artists of the twentieth century, Henri Cartier-Bresson with his humane and spontaneous photographs is closely linked to the modern photojournalism in its early stages.

His wandering nature brought him to some of the most significant sites and events in modern history; he covered many of the biggest events from the Spanish civil war to the French upbringing in 1968.

He is regarded as one of the true pioneers of street photography who was capable of producing extremely modern compositions.


Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France. His family was wealthy; his father Andre, a severe man dedicated to his successful business, made a fortune as a textile manufacturer.

Henri’s mother Martha exposed him to the Parisian arts scene from his early age, including music concerts, literature, poetry and art exhibitions.

At the early age of five, painting captured the interest of the young boy mainly thanks to his uncle Louis who was an accomplished painter.

The two spent hours in Louis’s studio together and young Henri began referring to his uncle as his ‘mythical father’. This apprenticeship ended tragically when his uncle was killed during the World War I.

Despite his father’s wishes for his son to attend the prestigious French business school, Henri Cartier-Bresson failed the entrance exam three times.

Eventually, in 1926 he went studying in Montparnasse at the private art academy of French cubist painter and sculptor Andre Lhote.

Lhote advocated combining the aesthetic of the Cubists with the technical conventions of French neoclassical painting, which he thought would connect modernism to tradition.

Along with his students, Lhote (pictured below) made trips to Parisian Louvre to study classical works of old masters and visited contemporary exhibitions around Paris.

From 1928 to 1929 Cartier-Bresson spent a year in England studying art and literature at Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge.

The next year, he was forced to leave studying, because he was enlisted into the French army and station outside of Paris. Upon returning to Paris, he was introduced to some important people in French art circles.

Young Henri was especially attracted to surrealist writer Rene Cravel and his well-known nihilism, his dedication to the philosophy outlined in the Surrealist manifesto and his air of rebellion.

Owing to Crevel, young Henri met some of the greatest minds and artists at that time such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Man Ray.

Surrealism’s reliance on intuition and spontaneous expression enticed Cartier-Bresson to add those ideas to his own experimental work.

Although the ideas and personalities of this very movement intrigued Cartier-Bresson greatly, he eventually choose to follow colleagues Robert Capa’s advice- to watch out for labels, because “they’re reassuring but somebody’s going to stick one on you that you’ll never get rid of”.

He advised him to keep the other thing for himself, in his heart of hearts.

As a boy, Cartier-Bresson had been initiated into the mysteries of the simple ‘brownie’ snapshot camera, but his first serious concern with medium occurred about 1930, after seeing the work of two major 20th century photographers Man Ray and Eugène Atget.

Having fulfilled his military obligations, in 1931, Henri Cartier traveled to French colonial Africa, the Cote d’Ivoire, seeking adventure, with the intention of escaping the structures of city life.

He took some photographs with his second-hand Krauss camera. This year-long adventure ended when he contracted parasitical disease, blackwater fever that nearly killed him.

Having returned to France in 1931, during his recuperation in Marseille, he saw, by chance, ‘Three Boys at Lake Tanganiyka’ (pictured below), a photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi.

The image featured three boys running naked into waves on an African beach; the image captured a unique moment in time so strikingly that Henri was inspired to pursue photography more seriously that had been absent in his earlier dabbling with the medium.

First Camera and Photos

Soon thereafter, Cartier-Bresson bought his first Leica camera, a new one to the market. It helped him facilitate the impromptu nature of his approach to photography, allowing him to act promptly, to capture candid images of his subjects without being overly intrusive.

From 1932 through 1933 and 1934 he traveled with his camera across Europe, Africa and Mexico producing a good number of photographs that were commissioned for publications.

One of the most successful image by Cartiert-Bresson from this period is Plase de l’Europe (1932.) The snapshot of a man gleefully hopping over a flooded area in Paris catches the moment just before the man’s heel hits the water.

A hazily-captured building in the distance contrasts with the ornamented, spiked fence; the two diverse elements combine in alchemy of curves and reflections creates the urban background.

The spontaneous photo was captured at the iconic railway, a bustling urban space, served as the settling for many famous twentieth-century artists such as Monet, Manet and Caillebote, all of whom had been influential in Cartier-Bresson’s own artistic development.

Modern motion is celebrated by the fact that it is forever stopped, the leaping man will never hit the puddle, the split-second image is permanently frozen in time.

This very photograph is one of only a few ones that Cartier-Bresson ever chose to crop. Ordinarily, he avoided adjusting his work after originally framing a shot and instead embraced unmediated chance encounters.

This aesthetic practice and preference made him one of the pioneers and founders of street photography.

Surrealism, War, and Changing Views

The photograph “Natcho Aguirre” was shot during his trip to Mexico in 1934 exemplifies the heavy influence of Surrealism on Cartier-Bresson work.

Like the Surrealist painters, Cartier-Bresson photographs are perplexing and disturbing visual games intended to provoke the subconscious mind to make connections that are deeply personal.

The half-naked man who seems to be writhing free of the reminder of his clothing could be contorting himself in either agony or ecstasy, the ambiguity is what makes the image so deeply unsettling.

The shoes take on a significance because of their displacement. Cast off and ordinary, in the context of this image, juxtaposed with the male torso, there is no logic to their inclusion in the composition.

The uncanny juxtaposition was a hallmark of Surrealism that Cartier-Bresson found interesting and irresistible.

Just before World War II, Henri Cartier-Bresson set aside photography and traveled to New York where he spent a year learning the principles of montage under the patronage of the modernist photographer Paul Strand.

The next year, he decided to return to Paris determined to capture Europe’s political climate in moving images. He joined Jean Renoir as an assistant to work in the production on the film for the communist party.

This very film named ‘Life is Ours’’ / La vie est á nous from 1936, attacked the leading powerful families who controlled France. As a photographer he felt indebted to the great films he saw as a youth.

They taught him to choose precisely the expressive moment, the telling viewpoint. The importance he gave to sequential images in still photography may be attributed to his preoccupation with film.

Afterwards, Henri Cartier-Bresson made three documentaries in support of Republican Spain. Shortly thereafter, he joined the staff of the newly founded communist newspaper Ce Soir and returned to photography.

Military Photographer

With the onset of World War II, Cartier-Bresson joined the French military as a photographer. That very year, he was taken prisoner and sent to German labor camp.

After three terrible years in the camp, he escaped on his third attempt. He settled down on the farm in Vosges and remained there until the end of the war.

He continued underground resistance activities with the MNPGD- National Movement of War Prisoners and Deportees.

When the Allied forces had landed in Normandy, Henri Cartier traveled to Paris with his fellow Capa in order to cover the city’s liberation from German occupation.

Capa had taken some of the most emblematic photographs of the Allied invasion on D-day on Omaha Beach, but the two men were responsible for providing some of the most memorable images of the death throes of the devastating war; they defined wartime photojournalism.

Henri Cariter-Bresson co-founded Magnum Photos agency along with fellow photographers Seymor, Capa and George Rodgers. The agency was found to help protect photographers and their interests, all reproduction rights and the rightful owners of their negatives.

On His Own

No longer working under contracts for magazines, Cartier-Bresson had to seek out work on his own. His political views and activities were firmly to the left and he was mainly dedicated to journalistic photography. He was free to pursue photography and its artistic possibilities.

In 1947, Cartier-Bresson went to China to document the civil war, social unrest that accompanied the political transition from Kuomintang, the Chinese National Party, to Mao Zedong’s communist rule and the People’s Liberation Army.

At that time in China, the value of paper money extremely decreased and Kuomintang decided to distribute 40 grams of gold per person to prevent even worse social unrest.

In the image Shanghai, frenetic Chinese citizens have lined up to sell their gold before the Revolution of Mao Zedong could render even the reliable currency of gold obsolete.

The subjects stand in a crush of bodies, their desperation fuses them into a single mass.

The photo was taken just before ten lives were lost in suffocating crush; Cartier-Bresson succinctly captured the claustrophobic character of the image.

The Birla House, from 1948 documents Jawaharlal Nehru, a Prime Minister of India, announcing the death of Mahatma Gandhi to the crowd.

The gravity of the historic speech and dramatic lightning create the pathos of the moment.

The photograph is a document of Cartier-Bresson’s awareness of the historical significance of the event and particularly, moment it captures: the tragedy of Gandhi’s death and the independence of India from British colonial rule.

Cartier-Bresson was one of the last people who speak with Gandhi before he died, little more than an hour before he was shot and killed.

The Decisive Moment

The publication of the book The Decisive Moment in 1952 was one of the most crucial events of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s career.

Henri Matisse designed the book’s cover, and the 126 photos it featured drew from his portfolio of images from all around the world.

Henri Cartier explained how he chose the title of the book. He used quote of seventeenth-century cleric and political agitator Cardinal de Retz which states: ‘There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment’.

This phrase, the title of his first publication became his aesthetic raison d’être. For Henri Cartier-Bresson, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of the second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

By the time of his grand exhibition in the prestigious Louvre in France 1955, Cartier-Bresson had acquired international recognition for photojournalism.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ability to get the most out of each situation was the key to his success.

He never refused being introduced to anyone, he had sensitivity to whoever he spoke with, and ultimately he was very connected to many important people.

All these attributes allowed him access to photos that no other photographer could match. For the next ten years he continued traveling the world, very often in the context of war.

In addition, he had the unique privilege of being the first Western photographer to take photographs in the Cold War-era SSSR.


Cartier- Bresson retired from photography and left Magnum Photo around 1966.

During the 1970s, Cartier-Bresson stopped carrying his camera around, which had been like a part of his body much of his adult life; he kept the camera in a safe where it remained.

In this period, he began painting again, applying an aesthetic honed over a lifetime of producing primarily photographs.

Towards the end of his life, Henri Cartier-Bresson even developed a reluctance to photography and wished to have no part in being curator, archivist or even a commentator on his own photography.

He died on August 3, 2004 in Cereste, France.

The concept of ‘the decisive moment’ captures the essence of Cartier-Bresson work. Since its invention, the potential of photography had been debated widely; the divide between ‘documentary’ and ‘art’ photography seemed intractable.

Cartier-Bresson used photography as medium to create visual documents of remarkable spontaneity; combining his affinity for the disciplined painting of the great masters, his interest in modern philosophy with his passion for adventure and desire to be in the middle of current events.


About David Fox

David Fox is an artist who created to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.

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