Profiles in Black&White : Henri Cartier-Bresson

In Article, Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on September 6, 2013 at 12:53 pm

“…you shouldn’t overshoot. It’s like overeating, overdrinking. You have to eat, you have to drink. But over is too much. Because by the time you press, you arm the shutter once more, and maybe the picture was in between.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Born on August 22,1908, to an artistically inclined family in Chanteloup France, Cartier-Bresson grew up comfortably as the oldest of five children. His Parisian education cultivated his love of the arts, eventually guiding him to study painting under cubist Andre Lohte and then to Cambridge University.

An early adapter of the 35mm camera, the Frenchman’s Leica would help define his style for the rest of his career. Much of the editing to his pictures happened at the time of inception, rather than dark room magic or cropping. His equipment tended to be light as well: a 50mm or perhaps 90mm lens were the usual sum of his armory.

After initial success as a photographer in the 1930s – his first photojournalism assignment was covering the coronation of King George  and Queen Elizabeth – Cartier-Bresson’s life was, like many, turned inside out during World War II. The Germans held him as a P.O.W. for three years, capturing him shortly after he enlisted in the army. He survived and immediately went back to his photography. He had his first museum show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1947 Also that year; he helped found Magnum Photos with Robert Capa, George Rodger, David Seymour and William Vandivert. He then headed east in to Asia for the next period of years.

“After World War II, I had a feeling with my friends, Bob Capa and Chim, that going to colonial countries was important,” Cartier-Bresson told filmmaker Sheila Turner-Seed, “What changes were going to take place there? That’s why I spent three years in the Far East. We didn’t know what was going to happen. There were different possibilities. We didn’t know what was going to happen… When a situation is pregnant – it’s to be present when there’s a change of situation, when there’s most tension.”

His travels led him to cross paths with Mahatma Gandhi shortly before the Indian’s assassination in 1948. Cartier-Bresson’s work covering Gandhi’s death was published in Life Magazine to much acclaim. Upon returning to France, he decided to create his first book, The Decisive Moment, which spanned the first two decades of his career. As time passed, he continued to travel all over the world, including a trip to Sardinia in 1966 on behalf of Vogue magazine. During the last decade of his photography career, Cartier-Bresson focused primarily on landscapes and portraits. In his sixties, he retired from photography to return to painting and drawing. Rarely did his camera leave his safe during the last three decades of his life.

Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson : Cartier-Bresson.

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