Sunday, 31 August 2008

Profile: Henri Cartier-Bresson

By the Marne River, 1938 - Image by Henri Cartier-Bresson

After a break last month, the blog’s photographer profile series comes back with one of photography’s most important characters. This photographer has been influential in the taking of images and the thought processes/philosophy behind the camera. We are, of course, looking at the one and only - Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on August 22nd 1908 at Chantheloup, Seine & Marne in France. He was born in a wealthy Norman family who had major interests in the textile business. Henri's education was quite extensive with him painting at Cambridge for one year and studying with the cubist Andre Lhote. He travelled extensively, going around Europe, The United States and Africa. During this period of his life, Cartier-Bresson was a painter. ‘Before I met Robert Capa and David (Chim) Seymour, I didn't know any photographers’ he once explained ‘ I was living with writers and painters more than photographers’. This varied artistic background provides the explaination why Cartier-Bresson was so influential in photography. He wasn’t just interested in photography but had many other outlets for his creativity. It is rather ironic then, that Henri Cartier-Bresson's name will be forever connected to photography, a medium that he took up with an artistic curiosity and a surrealist attitude.

By the time that Cartier-Bresson had met David 'Chim' Seymour and Robert Capa, he had had work exhibited in Mexico and Madrid. The early 1930’s marked the birth of photo-journalism. The politics of the day were varied, and often extreme. The birth of the popular front in France also coincided with that of photo journalism. The left bank cafes of Paris during the 1930's were arenas for passionate debates on political doctrine. Cartier-Bresson has stated that when Capa, Chim and himself talked in the Café du Dome it was NEVER about photography… always about politics. Magazines had started to pick up on the political changes going on in France and elsewhere in Europe. These magazines were important instruments for persuading the masses about political issues and making social comment on how people lived. Photography was used to educate and the photo-journalism was the perfect method to spread the message. It was an exciting period for photography that was to be interrupted by the breakout of war in 1939. Henri Cartier-Bresson was drafted into the French army in 1939 and served as a corporal in the army’s film and photo unit until he was captured in 1940. He was sent to Germany, ending up as part of the slave labour force working in a factory. During his time as a prisoner of war, he attempted escape three times, only being successful on the third attempt in 1943. Getting back to Paris, Henri joined the resistance where he formed a covert photographic unit to document the German occupation. To avoid the attention of the Gestapo, Cartier-Bresson would pose as an absent minded painter who only had time for his painting.

After the liberation of Paris, Henri was able to work on a number of projects including photographing General De Gaulle’ parade through Paris and a film called ‘Le Retour’, a documentary film about the liberation of the concentration camps. It was during this time that his famous ‘ unmasking of a collaborator’ was taken. Later Cartier-Bresson would disclose that he wanted to return to painting after the war but had felt that he needed to witness and record the events in the world with something quicker than a brush. Like Robert Capa and the other photographers who were to help form Magnum, Cartier-Bresson had been immensely frustrated by the lack of control over his work. In 1947 Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and George Rodger started the Magnum agency; each of them assigning a part of the world that they would cover. Ironically, Henri had been in the USA just a year earlier,coming across to finish a posthumous exhibition started when the New York museum of modern art believed he was missing, presumed dead. The early post war years saw Henri Cartier-Bresson travel through China, India and the Asia. After extensively travelling he returned to work in Europe during the early 1950’s. A trip to the Soviet Union was organised in 1954, although Henri was limited in what he could take due to the nature of the regime there. For the next twenty years, Cartier-Bresson continued to travel, taking images in Japan, India and Cuba but in 1966 he made the decision to leave the Magnum photo agency. He did agree, however, that the agency should still distribute his work to the press Film. A number of exhibitions and commisions followed, including a couple of films for the CBS in the United States.

All throughout his career, Henri Cartier-Bresson remained as much a philosopher of photography as he was an actual photographer. His decisive moment philosophy has become an important part of photographic theory - simply put the decisive moment is an exact timed moment when the photograph will work at its best. "Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever." In 1973, Henri decided to concentrate on his drawing and painting but he continued to take images throughout the rest of his life. He died in 2004 at the age of 95. His legacy is one of the most powerful of all the pioneering photographers. His images still retain a fresh and dynamic look all these years later and his photographic philosophy is still followed and practiced by many photographers... myself included. Henri Cartier-Bresson remains popular all these years later and he currently has several books of images and writing in print. For me though, his most revealing thoughts about photography hit directly on why i make photographs. Two reflect my thoughts about photography and being a photographer perfectly.

'We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth to bring them back.We cannot develop and print a memory'.

'As far as i am concerned, taking photographs is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one's originality. It is a way of life'.

All Images by Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Top left - Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1972 - Image by Martine Franck/Magnum
  • Middle right - Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1958
  • Middle left - An informer is reconised by a woman she has denounced: Dessau, Germany, 1945
  • Bottom right - Behind the Saint-Lazare station, Paris, 1932
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