Henri Cartier-Bresson has been called “equivocal, ambivalent and accidental”1 since his debut as a photojournalistHenri Cartier-Bresson has been called “equivocal, ambivalent and accidental”1 since his debut as a photojournalist. Amplified and enriched, the work of the photographer is revealed in all its grandeur. While he may appear to “be a hurried man or a traveler without luggage”2, to quote a few of his titles, he is a poet, attentive to the act of love made with each photograph, and this is where the genius is revealed. From a desired distance, we discover simultaneously the geographer, who analyses the permanence or vulnerability of cultures; the ethnographer, who captures gestures of work and rituals of religion; the anthropologist, who reflects the spectrum of emotions; and the sociologist, who reveals the development of destinies and histories.3 Cartier-Bresson’s dependence and uncompromising view of photography; to rely solely on the moment in time, is why he will always be remembered.
Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson studied painting with Andre Lhote in Paris, then painting and literature at Cambridge University in 1928 and developed a serious interest in photography in 1931. His work was first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery, New York, and first published in Vu magazine in 1932. He has been involved in numerous films, such as La Vie est a nous (1936), Le Regle du jeu (1939), his documentary film on the hospitals of Republican Spain in 1937 and his film on the liberation of the concentration camps with Richard Banks called Le Retour (1945). His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1946, and in 1947 he became co-founder of The Magnum photographic agency. He has published over a dozen books and has had his photographs printed in hundreds of magazines.
Cartier-Bresson traveled the world so that he may document and present to others the human condition. His photographs transcend any particular time or place. Instead, they capture the very essence of life, be it Harlem, Madrid, Shanghai or the Paris rue Mouffetard (Ill. 2)4. In rural Europe, silent in the absence of the engine, and where everything was still done by animals and human beings, he portrays, unaltered, a society’s captivating traits. At times his poetic intention towards subject matter is inadvertently socially charged, which makes his work all the more intriguing5. Each of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs presents itself not as part of a series, an archive selected among others, but as a singular work of art which, with its own formal qualities and unique meanings, exists in itself.
Throughout his career, he upheld his own philosophy of individuality and spontaneity in the photographic process. He feels that “you have to be yourself and you have to forget yourself” in order to discover the exact instant and position from which the photographer extracts a moment of meaning from ongoing existence6. Thus results in a style rooted in the own photographer’s personality and commentary. It is in 1955 that the album Les Europeens, conceived and laid out by Teriade, with a cover page by Juan MirF3, was published. This piece presented a dense portrait of a Europe where, ten years after the war, accumulated ruins, as well as traces of hunger and misery on people’s faces were still clearly visible. In the preface, Cartier-Bresson states that ” whether we are just passing or settled down in a particular place, in order to express a country or situation, one needs to have somehow established a close working relationship, to be supported by a human community; living !
takes time, and roots take shape slowly… ” One must wonder in the taking of Sunday on the Banks of the Marne (Ill. 5), how much time Cartier-Bresson spent relating to these rural townspeople. His position and proximity behind these men and women suggests an amiable relationship between artist and subject matter. This intimacy is even more evident in his portraiture of Henri Mattise, Vence (Ill. 3). The circumstances of the portrait tell us that Cartier-Bresson has allowed us into Matisse’s home, and most significantly, his life.
Compositionally is where Cartier-Bresson shines. He has a tendency to have his primary subjects; ordinary men and women, in dramatic movement, thus illustrated in Place de l’Europe (Ill. 1), Hyeres (Cover), and Siphnos (Ill. 4). This occasionally results in the blurring of the subject, resulting in a silhouette. This however sets the subject apart to become the focal point of the composition, and breathes life into the moment itself. The aforementioned photographs also demonstrate his ability of capturing a moment from twenty to thirty feet away, without losing its intensity. This ability of his, to freeze people in the most extraordinary or fantastic of circumstances, creates an almost surreal aura admist the picture plane.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is consistent with the style of The Magnum Agency, which he co-founded with fellow photojournalists Robert Capa, Chim and Rodger – high levels of contrast and distant shots, where strong composition is only improved upon by its compelling subject matter. This is evident in Rene Burri’s Tien An Men Square. However Cartier-Bresson apparently utilizes railings and vertical repetition within his compositions more effectively. It is this repetition that allows him to clarify a photo’s focal point.
The photographer was inspired primarily by Kertesz, whose sensitivity and personality remained dominant within his work depite it’s wide publication and commision. Cartier-Bresson’s most captivating work has been done on his travels, and are unintentionally politically or socially charged. Since 1932 and his first Leica: Spain and Italy, which he visited in particular with Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, he has brought back photographs since become unforgettable. In France, the experience of the Front Populaire and paid vacations in 1937, which he covers closely, offers a lyrical and budding promise to his work7. After 1955, his collection is enriched with new travels, in particular to Germany, and to East-Berlin in 1962. His book Images a la Sauvette was published in 1952 in Paris (The Decisive Moment, New York) and in 1955 he produced The Europeans. His philosophy of “the decisive moment” resulted in his influence on Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Izis and Edouard Boubat8. !
Consider the composition of Doisneau’s Three Children in the Park (1971)- a Classical statue gives way to the three playful children in the distance. Like Cartier-Bresson, there is a sublime magic at work; the tiny subjects become dominant within their awkward surroundings.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, at times, appears to be a dream. Have these moments really existed, these crowds really met, these posters calling people to fight really been posted, these kisses really been exchanged, these plates really been used, these encounters really occurred? The characters, faces, expressions, clothing, scenery, streets, houses, the ways of moving, of tending or bending an arm, have changed so much over half a century, it is as if we are the inheritors of history written before our very eyes. Everything would be but illusion, if it were not for the roll of film, which turns faithfully to preserve an everlasting trace
Twenty years ago, Cartier-Bresson put down the camera and resumed where he started — painting and drawing.
” Photography is to put in the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart ”
1 Clair, Jean, “Henri Cartier-Bresson”, http://www.picture.fr/mep/us/cartier1.htm
2 Fetterman, Peter, “Henri Cartier-Bresson”, http://www.visualradio.com/photoarts/fetterman/exhibits/bresson/bresson-bio.ht
3 Rosenblum, Naomi, A World History of Photography, Cross River Press, New York, 1984.
4 Gernsheim, Helmut, A Concise History of Photography, Dover Publications, New York, 1965.
1 Sheed, Sheila Turner, “Henri Cartier-Bresson” (interview), Popular Photography, May, 1974, p.142
2 Clair, Jean, “Henri Cartier-Bresson”, http://www.picture.fr/mep/us/cartier1.htm
4 Fetterman, Peter, “Henri Cartier-Bresson”, http://www.visualradio.com/photoarts/fetterman/exhibits/bresson/bresson-bio.html
5 Rosenblum, Naomi, A World History of Photography, p. 513
6 Newhall, B., The Instant Vision of Henri Cartier-Bresson, p.485
7 Op. Cit., Clair,Jean
8 Op. Cit., Rosenblum, Naomi, p. 483