Life and times of Henri Cartier-Bresson

The work of Henri Cartier-Bresson can now be seen at an exhibition in London. Lynette Eyb turns the lens on a celebrated photographer

It was only by chance that Henri Cartier-Bresson decided to take up photography seriously. The year was 1932 and the student artist with a love of surrealism had just returned from the Côte d’Ivoire in west Africa where, still in his early 20s, he had spent a year shooting with a small camera, training his eye to use it as if he were hunting.

Back in France he saw a photograph that was to change the direction of his life: Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi’s Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, showing children running carefree and naked into the sea; a moment of spontaneity and joy. “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. I took my camera and went out into the street,” Cartier-Bresson said.

Although he went on to photograph some of the pivotal moments of the 20th century – including the Spanish Civil War and the French student riots in 1968 – his focus was often on the everyday things that were, in fact, quite extraordinary.

When a French news magazine sent him to cover the coronation of King George VI in 1937, he returned from London without a single frame of the new king. Instead, he had captured the people lining the streets, turning spectators into participants. This was ‘street photography’, and Cartier-Bresson was taking it into the mainstream. From people lazing on the banks of the River Marne to children playing in the Jardin des Tuileries, he found art in the seemingly mundane.

Cartier-Bresson had been born in Chanteloup-en-Brie just east of Paris in 1908 and his father ran a successful textile manufacturing business. It was an environment that provided the financial security for him to indulge in art and photography.

By the mid-1930s he was travelling the world for news magazines, exhibiting in New York, and mixing with the cultural elite. It wasn’t until years later that he began photographing French life as extensively as that in other countries (his images of 1950s Paris and a series taken along the River Seine are particularly evocative).

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Cartier-Bresson also dabbled in cinema during the 1930s, working as an assistant to the director Jean Renoir on films including La Règle du Jeu (1939). He later put some of those skills to good use making documentaries, including Le Retour (The Return), which followed the repatriation of World War II prisoners and displaced people.

It was a subject familiar to Cartier-Bresson, who had been working for the French Army’s Film and Photography Unit when he was captured in the Vosges mountains in June 1940. He was held in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany for almost three years before escaping and getting back to France. He joined the Resistance and photographed life under the Occupation as well as the liberation of Paris in 1944.

After the war, Cartier-Bresson founded the Magnum photographic agency along with Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, George Rodger and William Vandivert. “Back in France, I was completely lost,” he told Le Monde newspaper. “At the time of the liberation, the world having been disconnected, people had a new curiosity. With Magnum was born the necessity for telling a story.”

He had met Capa and Seymour in 1937 when, after marrying Ratna Mohini, a Javanese dancer, he had taken a staff photographer’s job on Ce Soir, a French Communist newspaper. The marriage lasted until 1967; Cartier-Bresson married Martine Franck, also a Magnum photographer, in 1970.

Cartier-Bresson became known as the ‘father of photojournalism’, the art of using photographs to tell stories rather than merely illustrating them. However, by the early 1970s, he was taking photos rarely. Instead, he returned to his first love: drawing and art. “I knew I had nothing more to say,” he told TIME magazine. “I felt it.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson died at Montjustin in Provence in 2004, aged 95.