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Henri Cartier Bresson (1908 - 2004)

henri cartier bresson

I am a visual man. I watch, watch, watch. I understand things with my eyes.


Henri Cartier Bresson will doubtless be one of the first names encountered by anyone exploring the world of photography. Even during his lifetime, the 'father of photojournalism' became widely identifiable by the abbreviation HCB alone.

Cartier-Bresson was modest, reflective, not academic. He often altered his name when undertaking employment as a photojournalist, to distance his work from any preceding reputation that viewers would attach to it. But his name had always brought a certain amount of public profile.

The Cartier Bressons were a wealthy Parisian family of landowners and textile manufacturers, very visible to surrounding society. Henri grew up with a love of painting, inspired chiefly by his uncle, preferring to watch and study things around him than take centre stage. This led, in 1926, to enrolment at the academy of Cubist painter Andre Lohte.


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Lohte's highly theoretical and normative approach, where students would be required to perform 'exercises in purification' on reproductions of masterpieces, proved one of two key influences from this time on Henri Cartier Bresson's later work (tips on photography composition and the golden mean).

The second was his encounters with members of the emerging Surrealist movement at the Cafe Cyrano on the Rive Droite. He was fascinated by their emphasis on the senses, the unpredictable, the liberation from tradition and the direct connection of the subconscious with the immediate facts of life.

Sidewalk Cafe, Boulevard Diderot
Sidewalk Cafe, Boulevard Diderot Art Print
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Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris
Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris Art Print
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View from the Towers of Notre Dame
View from the Towers of Notre Dame Art Print
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In his twenties, after returning from a trip to the Cote d'Ivoire, Henri Cartier Bresson got hold of a Leica 35mm camera. Having been inspired by a photograph of three boys charging into the waves of Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkacsi, he roamed the streets of Marseille, determined to 'study reality through the lens of a camera'

I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to 'trap' life

It was the blend of compositional order and spontaneous, telling moments revealing something essential about the subject, that convinced Cartier Bresson to become a photographer.

His first exhibition came in 1932, in New York. As more followed his reputation grew, and on the advice of friend Endre Friedmann - later Robert Capa - he broadened his scope from Surrealist to photojournalist.

HCB travelled extensively in the U.S during this time, before returning to France and working with film director Jean Renoir. One project saw him making a film for the Communist Party - an association, though not strong, which had formed partly out of modest and slightly awkward self-consciousness about his bourgeois background.

In 1937, he married a Javanese dancer Ratni Mohini.

During World War II Henri Cartier Bresson was captured by the Nazis. After two unsuccessful bids for freedom, he finally escaped in 1943, thereafter seeing himself as an 'escapee'.

He made a film called 'Le Retour' on the return of French prisoners of war in 1945.

In 1947, with old friend Robert Capa and other prominent photographers, he co-founded the Magnum photo agency. Members were assigned a region of the globe on which to report and Cartier Bresson headed east to India and China. He soon achieved major international recognition, particularly for coverage of Gandhi's funeral.

Punjab, India, 1948
Punjab, India, 1948 Framed Art Print
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In 1952, he published 'The Decisive Moment' which not only included an impressive portfolio, but also expanded at length on his understanding of photography.

For me photography is to place head, heart and eye along the same line of sight.
Sifnos, Grece
Sifnos, Grece Art Print
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Cartier Bresson divorced Ratni in 1967, marrying Martine Franck three years later. He retired from photography soon afterwards reapplying himself to his first love of painting.

On August 3rd 2004, Henri Cartier Bresson died. He was ninety five, survived by wife Martine and daughter Melanie. He is buried in Provence.

By the time of his death HCB was universally counted amongst the pre-eminent artistic figures of the 20th century, completely unique for a photographer. His work is included in E.H Gombrich's 'The Story of Art'. During his life he photographed many of the century's most important events with a dedication to only the most pertinent moments.

The Frankfurter Rundshau reported on his death:

The eye of the century has closed.


Here's a review of my favourite HCB coffee table photo book. It's called Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Man, The Image and the World, and is a fantastic retrospective of his entire career.


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