The famous French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson was known as the eye of the century. The way he immortalized important social and political events of the 20th century and famous personalities in his portraits is still admired. This engaged drifter captured Africa in the 1920s, witnessed the Liberation of Paris, crossed paths with Gandhi just a few hours before his assassination, and immortalized the victory of the Chinese Communists. With Cartier-Bresson in charge photography became a place where journalism, political engagement, and art met.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Formative Years
The eldest of five children, Henri Cartier-Bresson was born on August 22, 1902, into a bourgeois family. He grew up in Paris and he was interested in drawing and photography in his youth. During his studies, Cartier-Bresson also practiced sports, hunting, and amateur photography. He also went regularly to theaters, museums, and concerts. After high school, he opposed his father’s wish to take over the family business. Henri wanted to paint and become an artist.
In 1926, he started taking private lessons with painters Jean Cottenet and Jacques-Emile Blanche, who was a close friend of Marcel Proust who introduced him to great Parisian intellectual figures like Gertrude Stein. He also met art critic Elie Faure, who happened to be the nephew of the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus. Reclus’ 1891 book Evolution and Revolution, and the Anarchic Ideal had a profound effect on Cartier-Bresson.
In the fall of 1926, Cartier-Bresson joined André Lhote’s art academy for two years. Poet René Crevel introduced him to the Surrealists, including Max Ernst and André Breton, and he discovered photography with Gretchen and Peter Powell. Cartier-Bresson attended a few meetings with the Surrealist group, and along with other members decided to join the Communist Party.
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The Influence of Surrealism
Cartier-Bresson embarked to Africa in 1930. At the age of 23, he took his first pictures of the Ivory Coast and published his photo report the following year. He bought his first Leica camera in Marseilles in 1932 and decided to devote himself to photography. He then went on to take pictures of Italy, Spain, and Mexico. His early photos already show a great mastery of composition. Quickly, Cartier-Bresson turned to photographing various things that were happening on the street. He let the street become the main subject of his pictures and not just the object he was photographing. He let the unexpected happen.
Just like painters before him who left their studios to draw their inspiration closer to the source, Cartier-Bresson also went outside. During this era, the street was not yet sufficiently photographed. It was a location yet to be explored and shown artistically through photography. From his beginnings as a photographer, Cartier-Bresson specifically chose to take pictures of the popular districts of Paris, rather than the clichéd glorious and rich Parisian streets.
In his pursuit of capturing chance encounters, Cartier-Bresson photographed a man jumping over a large puddle of water in the 1932 photo Behind the Gare St. Lazare. The photograph captures the split second in which a man is seen crossing over a puddle. The photo emulates a playfulness that is often found in Surrealism, seen here in the game of mirrors and the childish actions like jumping over puddles.
In the photo Livorno, Italy, 1932, chance takes on a different meaning. In this surrealist piece of work, there is a mixture of two unrelated objects. We see a man standing with his head rolled up in a curtain, reading a newspaper. Cartier-Bresson, like a Surrealist artist, aimed to provoke doubt in the viewers and then surprise them. Our eyes are not accustomed to this kind of sight, so it provokes a feeling of systematic displacement, an expression coined by the famous Surrealist artist Max Ernst.
Roman Amphitheater, Valencia, Spain, 1933 borrows another method from the Surrealists: that of collage. It is necessary to examine this photograph a few times before we realize what is actually represented here. The first part of the collage features a blurry image of a person coming halfway out of a doorway. In the foreground, we see a wooden gate, painted with the number 7. In a frame on the right, we see the head of a man. One of the lenses of his glasses seems white because of the reflection, which reinforces the abstract aspect of the composition.
While Surrealism was mostly communicated through painting and literature, Cartier-Bresson knew how to use his own art to show that photography could also express the imaginary and the unconscious. Throughout his career, he remained faithful to his process while refusing fresh techniques and procedures that were being developed. His photos remained black and white and were never cropped. This serves as proof of his extraordinary talent to perfectly capture the moment without post-processing.
The Importance of Cartier-Bresson’s Political Commitments
Cartier-Bresson became involved with Communism and the antifascist movements. Coming from a family of wealthy industrialists, he changed his name from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Henri Cartier since he no longer wanted to be associated with his family. In 1933, he started frequenting the AEAR (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) and the Communist meetings in Paris with Robert Capa, Chim, Henri Tracol, Louis Aragon, and Léon Moussinac.
In 1934, while in Mexico, he became friends with many Communists who were close to the National Revolutionary Party that was in power. He spent the year 1935 in New York, working as an activist with Nykino, a cooperative of militant filmmakers inspired by Soviet political and aesthetic conceptions. This allowed him to discover the Soviet cinema of Eisenstein and Dovjenko. He also campaigned for the independence of Indonesia with his wife and supported the Republicans in Spain. The list of Cartier-Bresson’s political commitments is certainly long.
In 1937, the photographer collaborated with a Communist daily paper called Ce soir, led by Surrealist poet Louis Aragon. Robert Capa and Chim were the official photographers of the paper. From its first issue, the magazine started publishing a photo of a child every day for 31 days on its front page. This concept was called The Mystery of the Lost Child and featured photos of children who were not really lost. The photographs were taken by Cartier-Bresson on the streets. Parents who recognized their children on the front page of the magazine got a chance to earn 200 francs.
In May 1937, Ce Soir sent the artist to London. He was to report on the coronation of George VI. Cartier-Bresson took a series of photos showing people watching the procession. He never actually shows the procession itself. The photos were a great success and his visual report was also used in the Communist magazine Regards which was led by Léon Moussinac.
During this time period, the photographer decided to try his hand at film which was more important than photography for Communist militancy. He started by working with the French filmmaker Jean Renoir between 1936 and 1939, becoming his assistant for Life Belongs to Us which was commissioned by the Communist Party for the May 1936 legislative elections. He also became part of the crew for A Day in the Country and The Rules of the Game.
On the initiative of Frontier Film, Cartier-Bresson shot Return to Life in Spain in 1937. It was a film about the consequences of Italian and German bombings. During the war, the artist was enlisted and taken prisoner, but he escaped and joined a resistance group in Lyon. He photographed the fights during the Liberation of Paris and the martyred village of Oradour-sur-Glane. His short film Reunion, about the discovery of the German camps by the Allies and the repatriation of prisoners, was released in France in late 1945. In this film, Cartier-Bresson’s camera captured the faces marked by fear and the war. The artist focused on people returning from the concentration camps.
In 1939 France, following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Communist press was banned and the French Communist Party dissolved. This new ambient of McCarthyism forced Cartier-Bresson to camouflage his political commitment and his works signed as Henri Cartier. For years this would lead to a distorted vision of his art, which cannot be understood without taking into account the political commitments of the famous photographer. Until the crushing of the Hungarian revolt by the Soviets in 1956, Cartier-Bresson would nevertheless continue to vote Communist.
Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are historical testimonies. His photographs immortalize and preserve important events. Through his works, we can observe the history and political events of the 20th century.
More than simply capturing reality, Cartier-Bresson’s photography functions as a sociological and anthropological document. It is conceived in relation to painting as a pictorial space in its own right. Cartier-Bresson thought of composition, perspective, light, lines, and planes like a painter. The structures in his photos show mixes of vertical and horizontal lines, and curves and shapes that echo the modern paintings of Kandinsky, Klee, or Mondrian.
The Magnum Years
In February 1947, Cartier-Bresson had a major retrospective at MoMA. The same year, he founded Magnum with his Communist friends Robert Capa and Chim. The idea of Magnum was to allow photographers to retain full control over the rights of their photos. This photographic press agency was a self-managed cooperative, where all decisions were made jointly and profits were equitably redistributed. Following Capa’s advice, Cartier-Bresson abandoned Surrealist photography for good in order to devote himself to photojournalism. He would spend the next 20 years traveling around the world and taking pictures.
In August of 1947, Cartier-Bresson was appointed as an official photographer for the United Nations. For Magnum, he traveled to India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Burma together with his wife. He was there to document the consequences of the partition of the Indies and the displacement of twelve million people. He also managed to meet with Gandhi just hours before his assassination. He would photograph Nehru’s announcement of Gandhi’s death and the funeral. These world-famous images were published in Life magazine.
For Magnum, Cartier-Bresson also traveled to Beijing in order to photograph the last hours of the Kuomintang. In Shanghai, he saw a crowd of people rushing to the bank to convert their money into gold. These photos were published in the first issue of the famous French magazine Paris Match.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Cartier-Bresson obtained a visa to travel to the Soviet Union the following year. His friends Robert Capa and Chim were both killed while reporting. Capa died in Indochina in 1954 and Chim in Egypt in 1956.
Cartier-Bresson continued with photojournalism. He traveled to Cuba in 1963 immediately after the missile crisis. He sold the photos to Life Magazine, along with an article that he wrote himself. Later, the artist also produced a series of more personal photographs including portraits of painters like Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Braque, and Rouault.
For a year, he also traveled around France by car to create a book titled Vive la France, published in 1970. A dance enthusiast since 1930, he also went to Bali to work on a series of pictures with his wife, highlighting the pictorial language of dancing. He continued to travel around the world until his death in 2004.