The Photography Legends come back on the blog with Henri Cartier-Bresson whose photographs helped establish photojournalism as an art form.
He is one of the most original, accomplished, influential, and beloved figures in the history of photography with his uncanny ability to capture candid moments.
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About the Artist
Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) was a French humanist photographer considered a master of candid photography, and an early user of 35 mm film.
He pioneered the genre of street photography and 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.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born the oldest of five children and as a son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, in Chanteloup-en-Brie, a village outside Paris, France.
The young Cartier-Bresson was meant to inherit the family textile business but 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.
Cartier-Bresson also entered the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote and took up with the Paris art crowd. He regularly attended the wild parties thrown by Harry Crosby (nephew of J.P. Morgan), where he socialized 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.
Thanks to Lhote, and despite being frustrated with his rigorous theoretical training, Cartier-Bresson started to be heavily inspired by geometry and by the geometric shapes found in the cubist movement.
In his early twenties, Cartier-Bresson lived for nearly a year in Ivory Coast where the lack of access to painting materials inspired him to start taking photographs of the people he met.
Back in France in late 1931 after contracting malaria, he bought his first Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles in 1932.
The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed.
He even enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The miniature-format camera gave Cartier-Bresson what he called "the velvet hand…the hawk’s eye."
He took his Leica across Europe (Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid) when he was travelling with his friends.
Cartier-Bresson’s first photojournalist photos were published in 1937 when he covered the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, for the French weekly Regards. He focused on the new monarch’s adoring subjects lining the London streets and took no pictures of the king.
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.
Cartier-Bresson moved seamlessly between art and commerce and 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.
Earning a reputation for being in the right place at the right time, he documented the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, the civil war in China in 1948, 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,
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.’
Cartier-Bresson once said of his work, ‘To take a photograph means to recognize, simultaneously and within a fraction of a second‚ both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one‚ head, one‚ eye, and one‚ heart on the same axis.’
This idea gave birth to the concept of the ‘decisive moment’, which remains synonymous with Cartier-Bresson.
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.
Across his extraordinary career, Henri Cartier-Bresson documented some of the 20th century’s most dramatic moments and 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.
To see more of Henri's work:
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