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Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) was a French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. He was an early adopter of 35 mm format, and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the “street photography” or “life reportage” style that has influenced generations of photographers who followed.
Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, the oldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. His mother’s family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy, where he spent part of his childhood. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris, near the Europe[where?] Bridge. They were able to provide him with financial support to develop his interests in photography in a more independent manner than many of his contemporaries. Cartier-Bresson also sketched in his spare time.
As a young boy, Cartier-Bresson owned a Box Brownie, using it for taking holiday snapshots; he later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was raised in a traditional French bourgeois fashion, required to address his parents using the formal vous rather than the familiar tu. His father assumed that his son would take up the family business, but the youth was strong-willed and upset by this prospect.
He attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students to attend Lycée Condorcet. The proctor caught him reading a book by Rimbaud or Mallarmé, and reprimanded him: “Let’s have no disorder in your studies!” Cartier-Bresson said, “He used the informal ‘tu’-which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on: ‘You’re going to read in my office.’ Well, that wasn’t an offer he had to repeat.”
Early on, he became inspired by a 1930 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, this captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive. Cartier-Bresson said:
The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.”
That photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. He described the Leica as an extension of his eye. 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 enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography — the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He said, “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, ready to ‘trap’ life.” Restless, he photographed in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. His photographs were first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934 in Mexico, he shared an exhibition with Manuel Alvarez Bravo. In the beginning, he did not photograph much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed there extensively.
In 1934 Cartier-Bresson met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin who was called “Chim” because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin later changed his name to David Seymour. The two had much in common culturally. Through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa. The three shared a studio in the early 1930s and Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson, “Don’t keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don’t fidget. Get moving!”
Cartier-Bresson almost exclusively used Leica 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with normal 50 mm lenses or occasionally a wide-angle for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera’s chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white films and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph almost by stealth to capture the events. No longer bound by a huge 4×5 press camera or an awkward medium format twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called “the velvet hand [and] the hawk’s eye.”
He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as “[i]mpolite…like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand.”
He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Indeed, he emphasized that his prints were not cropped by insisting they include the first millimetre or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area resulting, after printing, in a black border around the positive image.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color. He disliked developing or making his own prints and showed a considerable lack of interest in the process of photography in general, likening photography with the small camera to an “instant drawing”. Technical aspects of photography were valid for him only where they allowed him to express what he saw:
Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see… The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.—Henri Cartier-Bresson
He started a tradition of testing new camera lenses by taking photographs of ducks in urban parks. He never published the images but referred to them as ‘my only superstition’ as he considered it a ‘baptism’ of the lens.
Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the art world’s most unassuming personalities. He disliked publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Although he took many famous portraits, his own face was little known to the world at large (which presumably had the advantage of allowing him to work on the street in peace). He dismissed others’ applications of the term “art” to his photographs, which he thought were merely his gut reactions to moments in time that he had happened upon.
In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotiv.—Henri Cartier-Bresson