Considered one of the greatest 20th-century photographers, Cartier-Bresson bore witness to world-changing events — from Spain’s Civil War to the death of Gandhi — while capturing ‘decisive moments’ in the lives of ordinary people
1. Painting and drawing were his first loves
Born in 1908 in a village outside Paris, the young Cartier-Bresson was meant to inherit the family textile business — but the budding artist had other ideas. After failing his baccalaureate exams three times, his parents finally allowed their 17-year-old son to study twice a week with French painters Jean Cottenet and Jacques-Émile Blanche.
2. He moved in Bohemian circles
After studying at Magdalene College in Cambridge from 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson took up with the Paris art crowd. He regularly attended the wild parties thrown by Harry Crosby (nephew of J.P. Morgan), where he socialised with Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, met Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and was introduced to New York gallerist Julien Levy. Levy would later give Cartier-Bresson his first commercial break, staging an exhibition of his work in 1933.
3. He contracted blackwater fever in Ivory Coast — and expected to die
In his early twenties Cartier-Bresson lived for nearly a year in Ivory Coast, where he spent much of his time hunting. He also travelled to Cameroon and Togo, and along the Niger River. A lack of access to painting materials inspired him to start taking photographs of the people he met. Few of these early images remain; Cartier-Bresson only belatedly recognised their decisive importance, and added them to his portfolio toward the end of his life. The adventure came to an end when he contracted blackwater fever (a complication of malaria) and returned to France to recuperate — having already sent instructions to his family for his funeral.
4. He made no secret of his political leanings
After spending time in Mexico and the United States, Cartier-Bresson worked as an assistant to filmmaker Jean Renoir on Une partie de campagne and La Règle du jeu. In between, Cartier-Bresson made three documentaries in support of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. He later said of the period, ‘Hitler was at our backs. We were all on the Left. There is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be proud of.’
5. He spent three years as a prisoner of war — and escaped on his third attempt
Eager to join the fight against Fascism, Cartier-Bresson volunteered for the war effort and in 1940 was assigned to a film and photography unit in Metz, France. Captured by the Germans soon after enlisting, he spent three years in captivity. After two failed attempts at escape, he finally managed to reach a nearby farmhouse. He spent the rest of the war working to liberate others, and photographing the occupation of France with his beloved Leica camera.
The American Office of War Information commissioned Cartier-Bresson to make a documentary about returning French prisoners (La Retour, 1946), which became the focal point of the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947. The museum planned the show as a retrospective, as Cartier-Bresson was thought to be dead. But the artist was very much alive — and was present at its opening.
6. Somehow, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time
Cartier-Bresson moved seamlessly between art and commerce, participating in gallery shows while working as a photojournalist for titles including Harper’s Bazaar and LIFE. In 1947, with his close friend Robert Capa and several other photographers, he founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative that allowed members to retain the rights to their own images. Cartier-Bresson spent three years travelling around Asia and the Middle East, together with his first wife, Carolina Jeanne de Souza-Ijke, a Javanese dancer who performed under the name Ratna Mohini.
Earning a reputation for being in the right place at the right time, he documented the funeral of Mahatma Ghandi — having met with the Indian independence leader just hours before his assassination. He documented the civil war in China in 1948, the fall of Shanghai to the Communists in 1949, and the Indonesian War of Independence. In 1954 he became the first Western photographer in seven years to be allowed to shoot inside the Soviet Union, charging LIFE a small fortune for his images through Magnum.
7. He turned discretion into an art
In order to achieve the candid shots for which he became famous, Cartier-Bresson sought to blend in with his surroundings as much as possible. He never used flash, and covered his chrome Leica camera with black tape to make it less conspicuous. His 1952 album Images à la sauvette (Images on the sly), references this working method. The book’s cover was designed by his close friend Henri Matisse, whom he photographed in 1944 — a work that featured in Cartier Bresson’s 1947 solo show at MoMA.
Cartier-Bresson went to great lengths to preserve the anonymity that facilitated his work. When collecting an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he hid his face from the crowd with a piece of paper.
8. Truman Capote described him as ‘dancing along like an agitated dragonfly’
In 1946, Cartier-Bresson was sent on assignment with Truman Capote, the American novelist. As Capote would later describe: ‘I remember once watching Bresson at work on a street in New Orleans — dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye: click-click-click (the camera seems a part of his own body), clicking away with a joyous intensity, a religious absorption.’
This swift-footed motion was confirmed in a 1962 documentary that shows Cartier-Bresson taking pictures on a French street. The photographer is constantly on the move, hiding his camera behind his back until the last possible moment.
Cartier-Bresson once said of his work, ‘To me, a photograph is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.’ This idea gave birth to the concept of the ‘decisive moment’, which remains synonymous with Cartier-Bresson.
Perhaps no image better illustrates this sensibility than Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932), in which an anonymous, silhouetted figure is caught mid-skip across a mirror-like expanse of water. Beaumont Newhall, the first curator of MoMA’s photography department, exhibited Gare St. Lazare in Cartier Bresson’s 1947 solo show The photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson at the museum in New York.
9. He resigned from Magnum, the agency he had co-founded, to focus on drawing
After spending the 1950s and 1960s travelling the world on assignment — returning to China, India and Mexico, as well as visiting Cuba and Japan — Cartier-Bresson eventually grew weary of his globetrotting lifestyle. He married a second time in 1970, to fellow Magnum photographer Martine Frank, and the couple soon had a daughter. In 1974 he resigned from Magnum and switched his focus to portrait and landscape photography. He also returned to his initial calling: painting and drawing.
10. He left behind more than half a million negatives
Across his extraordinary career, Henri Cartier-Bresson documented some of the 20th century’s most dramatic moments, from the coronation of George VI to the collapse of Beijing. He photographed famous artists, writers and film stars including Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Albert Camus, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, among many others. When he died in 2004, shortly before his 96th birthday, he left behind more than half a million negatives taken over the course of 50 years in more than 40 countries.
Yet Cartier-Bresson’s most-loved works are often his most thematically modest: snapshots of ordinary people going about their daily lives. Images such as Rue Mouffetard (1952) redefined the role of fly-on-the-wall photography and inspired 20th-century greats such as Martin Parr.
‘Cartier-Bresson was working before television took over, when people saw the world through the eyes of the magazines,’ says Peter Galassi, curator of the 2010 MoMA retrospective, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. ‘That work took him all around the globe to every conceivable walk of life. He was equally at home with peasants and kings. It’s his breadth of curiosity that I think is what matters to us today.’