March 25, 2017 by Rob Cook
In this post as with others I have drawn heavily on the best sources I could find. In the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson it is Pierre Assouline. He is the author of the book, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography.” His wonderful book is the only biography I could find on Cartier-Bresson but it was more then enough. His personal friendship with Cartier-Bresson gave him an insight rarely seen in biographies. I based a lot of the structure of this sketch off of his biography. He really made this mythical figure come alive for me and I really connected to Pierre’s work. If you get a chance to pick up his book, you won’t be disappointed.
“I am a visual man. I watch, watch, watch. I understand things through my eyes.”
I love, love, love Henri Cartier-Bresson. I’m not sure we would have been friends in life but I love his vision. I can sit for hours looking at his images and discover new things every time. If I had to rank my favorite photographers, he would be up there with W Eugene Smith, Eikoh Hosoe and Sebastian Salgado. The man was brilliant!!
In Pierre Assouline’s book, He says this about his friend.
To people who know a bit about everything, he was Cartier-Bresson. To those in the profession, HCB was enough. His intimate circle preferred the surrealist wink of his ‘En rit Ca-Bre, while others referred to Henri as if there were only one. All of them have their own ideas as to who he was. Each of these helps to illuminate the tinge of madness, the genius, and the darker side. All of us contribute our own truth, since all who knew him have captured a part of the man who was our friend. My view is a mosaic of all these ideas. Biographers and portrait artists, however, are go-betweens, forced to mediate inadequately between the subject and the rest of the world in order to assuage everyone’s understandable curiosity.
This legendary character, regarded by some people as impossible, never indulged in self-promotion. He was hardly ever seen on television, or heard on the radio, or featured in the press. He was perfectly happy to stay away from the nasty trappings that inevitably accompany fame, making no effort to correct the impression held by most people that he had died long ago.
He was the personification of impatience, but was also full of curiosity, indignation, enthusiasm and bad temper. He was a frenetic thinker who could not keep still or control his own temperament – to him life was inseparable from movement. His uniqueness was a source of difficulty, but he was one of those who give eccentricity a good name. Nothing afforded him greater private pleasure than deliberately to indulge in the aristocratic delight of annoying people. But it is dizzying to think of all the sights that he saw in his long life, all the experiences he had.
In short, despite his objections to the word, he was an artist. To retrace his life and revisit his work is to tell the story of one man’s vision.
Henri Cartier-Cartier-Bresson lived his life to the fullest. He not only traveled the world, but he lived in these countries. He became part of their culture, in turn they became a part of him. He lived his life never knowing when he would return home. He looked at the world a different way and that is the power behind his vision.
Cartier-Bresson had the luxury of being born into a wealthy family. That allowed him to become whatever he chose in life. Luckily for us, he chose to be a photographer. His family allowed him the freedom to live abroad for long stretches of time without having to know where the money came from. His family never flaunted their wealth and Cartier-Bresson grew up always thinking they were poor. All his life, Cartier-Bresson thought wealth was dirty and the showing of wealth was immoral.
Henri was the oldest of five children. Even at an early age he showed one character trait, his temper. He never was able to conquer this weakness. When someone annoyed him or events didn’t bend to his will he simply could not control himself. He would roll on the ground and even bang his head against the wall although curiously not ever hurting himself.
He grew up going to concerts with his mother and he loved chamber music. His mother took him to the Louvre where he grew to love art and she developed in him a love of poetry and tried to instill in him a love of religion, but it never took hold. He was a nonconformist soul that was convinced man created God. From the beginning, he was attracted to paganism and Greek Mythology. The only thing Cartier-Bresson gave his complete and utter devotion to was art in all its forms. This never changed throughout his life. Art gave him the discipline he craved in life. The passion for art was all absorbing for Cartier-Bresson, even to the point of almost ignoring all other activities. When he painted, he would throw himself into the study of a certain concept until he was comfortable. He was mediocre in his studies because he wasn’t disciplined enough, but he became a compulsive reader. After adolescence, reading became the only activity he could never stop. It became for him one of the fine arts, fuelling the sort of conversation considered to be part of a true gentleman’s way of life.
The only activity outside of art that remotely interested Cartier-Bresson was Scouting. Through Scouting Cartier-Bresson grew to appreciate the outdoors. Reading, painting, and looking were the only things that really mattered to Cartier-Bresson and he never changed.
Cartier-Bresson’s grandfather and father wanted him to take over the family business, but he was not interested. Meal times were often tense with lectures from concerned family and resistance from a stubborn Henri. Cartier-Bresson’s father was concerned that Henri would live his life never doing anything. Out of desperation he announced, “You can do whatever you want to do, but you will not be your father’s son. You will have the revenue from your allowance to finance the studies you choose. Whatever you decide, do it well.” Cartier-Bresson, feeling suffocated by his surroundings, and being the individualistic soul he was, moved out. He was 19 years old.
Cartier-Bresson was going to follow his love and become a portrait painter so he had to learn how to become one. He had to develop a technique so he sought out several well know teachers and schools, finally settling on Andre Lhote. Lhote was a Cubist painter known for his portraits, and his writings on art. Lhote was to become Cartier-Bresson’s teacher and mentor and had a monumental influence in his life. Under Lhote, Cartier-Bresson learned the art of the portrait, the sketch, and above all the art of composition. It was under Lhote’s influence that Cartier-Bresson developed his philosophy and vision. It was in Lhote’s studio that Cartier-Bresson heard for the first time what became his lifelong creed, “No one enters here but geometricians.” In Pierre Assouline’s biography he gives us insight to Cartier-Bresson’s love of geometry.
Cartier-Bresson’s personal gospel might have begun with the words ‘In the beginning was geometry’. There could have been no better summing-up of his quest to delve beneath appearance and find the order hidden in universal chaos, to untangle the one from the other and combine visual emotion with the best way to express it. The painter that he aspired to become could not imagine that an artist could fail to recognize the existing order. It would be as absurd as an orchestral conductor without a sense of rhythm.
Cartier-Bresson spent two years at the Lhote Acadamy but he wanted to be himself not Lhote. He began to feel confined so he wanted out. Cartier-Bresson had a restless soul and when he was finished with something he moved on. It can be said that Henri Cartier-Bresson became a photographer by studying painting.
Cartier-Bresson next spent eight months studying at Magdalene College, Cambridge in Great Britain. Cartier-Bresson left Britain and returned to Paris.
Cartier-Bresson was a surrealist but was first and foremost a rebel and outsider. Over the next few years he developed friendships that proved to be the guide for his whole life. Whatever he put his mind to, he went at it full force.
In the beginning there was Jacques-Emile Blanche. Blanche adopted Henri as a protégé. He introduced Cartier-Bresson to the elite of the elite in the art cafes and salons of Paris. One of the most influential was Rene Creval. Creval led Henri to people and places and ideas that influenced his whole life. Creval introduced Henri to the most exclusive Salons and brothels in Paris. These are the places where life was buzzing. Cravel was a permanent rebel. He talked very rapidly and never held back on anything. He flaunted his homosexuality, and initiated his friends into the practice of Spiritualism and he took part in all types of pleasures. Creval was an absolute Surrealist.
Cravel intrigued Henri. Cravel was full speed ahead in life, but as a true surrealist he also had a dark and brooding side, which Henri never fully adopted. Cravel introduced Cartier-Bresson to the inner most sanctums of Surrealism. Surrealism wasn’t a political party or philosophy; it was an attitude of mind, a way of living life. Surrealism gave Cartier-Bresson’s generation a way to channel their desires for liberty and dreams. Through surrealist writings, Cartier-Bresson found what he had been looking for in life. It gave Henri the justification for his rebellion against anything that restricted his liberty. This is where Cartier-Bresson was first introduced to Communism.
In the surrealist manifesto, La Revolution Surrealiste, Cartier-Bresson found his justification.
Surrealism, masculine noun: pure automatism by which one purposes to express either verbally, in writing, or in any other fashion the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, and beyond all considerations aesthetic or moral. 
As a member of the Surrealist movement Cartier-Bresson attended all the meetings but he never participated in the discussions or arguments. He never did anything to draw attention to himself. He sat in the corner watching. He studied the elites, always listening and learning, but that’s all. He was too impressed to break his silence.
One of the people Henri watched was Andre Breton. Breton was an atheist and French Communist that affected a generation with his writings and thought. Breton had largely created Surrealism and was a God in the Surrealist world. It was his second book, Nadja that had the greatest effect on Cartier-Bresson. After Nadja, Cartier-Bresson never looked at people and the world in the same way again. He never took people at their face value; there was always some angle to every situation. He questioned everything at all times. To Henri, the power of imagination came first. He was a professional dreamer.
Even with the greats of Surrealism parading through his life, Cartier-Bresson never fully accepted Surrealism. Even in the brothels, he never participated; Henri Cartier-Bresson was a permanent onlooker. In the end, he was always governed by his natural instincts to steer clear of anything that would compromise his free will, independence or personal judgment. He was an outsider and refused to play the game because he refused to be committed to anything. He could never be left out because he had never belonged in the first place.
During these busy years Cartier-Bresson found the time to fulfill his military obligations. This was especially difficult for him because of his rebel personality and it required mental and physical discipline. He thought about being a pilot and joined the air force. He decided against flying since he was always finding himself facing discipline for his attitude.
It was during one of these times that Harry Crosby came into Henri’s life. Crosby was an American and local eccentric. Crosby had been visiting the military base and saw Cartier-Bresson standing at attention waiting for discipline. Crosby was passionate about poetry and literature and recognized Henri from Andre Lhote’s studio. Crosby suggested to the commander that Cartier-Bresson should be allowed to fulfill his discipline at his house. He promised he would watch him and not let him escape. This led to Cartier-Bresson spending weekends at Crosby’s home even after his military service had finished.
Crosby was a Harvard Grad and part of Boston’s high society but mostly he was a publisher and eccentric. Crosby and his wife founded Black Sun Press, which was the first to publish many struggling writers and poets. Many went on to become famous like James Joyce, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence. Crosby lived life on his own terms and he knew everybody that was anybody. Every weekend the elite of poetry, literature, art and music would parade through Crosby’s house. It was a cauldron bubbling over with creative talent. Again, Henri was the young outsider, but he watched intently and studied. He soon became friends with these cultural elite and it was here that he first was exposed to photography.
Gretchen and Peter Powell were friends of Harry Crosby and also adopted Henri. Peter was an advanced amateur photographer and taught Cartier-Bresson what could be done with a camera and more importantly the work it took to do it. Gretchen, a tall Texas blonde introduced Henri to Jazz music and love. Gretchen and Henri had an intense affair that lasted for years. 
Feeling stifled by the relationship Henri again looked for a way out of his situation. It was another friend, Paul Morand that offered that escape. He suggested Henri should travel.
With his grandfather’s help, Henri booked passage on a ship to the Ivory Coast. Along with the tickets he had 1000 Francs in his pocket and several books in his baggage.
The country Cartier-Bresson discovered was a French colony in West Africa. It was a backwater that hadn’t changed much in colonial times. For decades it had been exploited for its natural resources, mostly rubber, palm, Mahogany and Cacao trees. The forests were majestic but stank with decay and death.
Never losing touch with home, Henri would send long letters home to his family. In the beginning, he took any job he could find. He worked as a woodcutter, planter, and a storekeeper and then he met an Australian hunter named, Doua. From then on he hunted for a living. His grandfather and father had taught him how to use a gun. He would set out in search of prey with a lamp attached to his forehead; he could see the eyes of the animals. After a night of hunting he would dry the meat and take it to the local villagers to sell.
When he wasn’t hunting he was taking his first photographs. He had bought a used Krauss camera before he left France. It was very basic and used the lens cap for the shutter. These first images consisted of some landscapes, but mostly it was people in action. True to form, the images were very geometric with strong leading lines and shapes. Cartier-Bresson had naturally developed his own visual language, which he never got away from his whole career.
His images from Africa were simple and not journalistic in any way. They were diverse in nature. Sadly only a few negatives survived as Cartier-Bresson destroyed most of them because they were of poor quality. His camera had been eaten away by mildew, which resulted in double images.
One day, he was horrified to see his urine had turned black. He became feverish, then convulsive. He would black out from time to time. Henri was diagnosed with Parasitical Disease Bilharzia. His condition got worse and he resigned himself to death. The locals told Cartier-Bresson that bilharzia was almost always a death sentence and the most prolific killer in the region. Unable to get the medicine that would heal him, Henri turned to Medicinal herbs. There was one chance in a hundred that it would work, but that’s all he had.
Henri wote one last letter home saying good-bye. He warned of his imminent death and set out his last wishes. He wanted his body sent home and buried in the Eawy Forest among the beech trees he loved. He wanted a string quartet playing Debussy in the background. His grandfather quickly replied, That would be expensive, It would be better if you just came home. His family never took him seriously. Fortunately the Australian, Doua, his hunting companion, was able to cure him and saved his life.
Henri Cartier-Bresson never forgot Africa and celebrated it his whole life. Had it not been for his near death experience he would have stayed in Africa. His experience in Africa crystalized his concept of travel. If you want to integrate, you must stay for months or even years. Henri largely followed that pattern for rest of his life. Cartier-Bresson spent a year in Africa. No one could ever tell him he hadn’t seen the darker side of life.
By 1931 all the elements were in place, Personality, philosophy, geometry, character, culture, eye, and a world vision. Henri Cartier-Bresson was ready for life. Everything that came after 1931 developed and strengthened him but didn’t fundamentally change him. What was most surprising about Henri, was “he was wisdom in a wild man.”
For four years he had been molded a geometric vision of the world. Surrealism, Africa and a near death experience were all pivotal moments in his life. He owed so much to the people he had met along the way. Lhote, Breton, Crosby and Doua and many others were the names he would always go back to throughout his life.
Henri was 23 years old and on to the next phase of his life, photography.
When Henri told his father about his decision he made sure he had backup in the form of his friend, Max Ernst. His father wasn’t shocked and considered it a bad choice. Cartier-Bresson pleaded with his father saying he was giving up painting for photography because he felt it was the best way for him to live life to the fullest. Henri’s father took no pride in his son’s decision.
Henri destroyed nearly all his paintings so the new medium could take over and thrive. Henri’s private philosophy became, “One paints while one is taking a photograph.” At this time photography was booming all over Paris. Man Ray, Andre Kertiesz, and Brassai had all convinced gallery owners to display their photographs. The first works that impacted Cartier-Bresson were Eugene Atget, Andre Kertesz, and Martin Munkacsi. He regarded their work as a poetic inspiration.
One image in particular impressed Cartier-Bresson. It was an image of three naked black youths seen from the rear plunging in the waves of Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania. The image had all the elements that Cartier-Bresson loved, Africa, Surrealism, and Geometry. What blew Henri away about the image was the “interplay between the images, the masses of sand, and the lines formed by the foam; and then the movement, youth, energy and speed of the boys. It was life, nothing else but life.”
For Henri Cartier-Bresson he needed to be mobile and photograph life. That couldn’t be done on a tri-pod. Henri Cartier-Bresson became a photographer on the day he bought his first Leica. The hunter had found his weapon. From that day on his Leica became his constant companion. The camera fit perfectly in his hand. It became like an artist sketchbook to Henri. He saw in the Leica, the art of hunting. It allowed him to feel like he wasn’t disturbing the natural order of things. It was the perfect instrument for surprising life.
About this time Henri became re-acquainted with the café scene in Paris. For Henri, café’s operated as office, social scene, and a second home. His café of choice was the Dome, It was where he met poets, writers, painters and most important other photographers. Every Day Cartier-Bresson would wander the streets of Paris looking, watching and photographing life. Usually every night Henri would go to a café and enjoy the conversation.
The Old World
With friends, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues and Lenor Fini, Henri set out on a life-changing trip exploring the old world and photographing. For two years the group crisscrossed Europe in a used Buick exploring and trying not to kill each other. During the trip true natures came out and things often turned sour. It was not uncommon for Henri to order the car be turned around to go back and photograph something he had seen. Henri could be very tyrannical, impatient and demanding. In order to shut Henri up his friends would grab his Leica and threatened to throw it away.
The photographs took during the trip where among his freest images. Henri destroyed many of the negatives because they were not good enough. It was during this time Henri shot one of his best-known images. It was a masterpiece of a man jumping over a puddle of water; He had placed the lens between a gap in a fence and caught the decisive moment. In her analytical paper, Kaitlin says this about the image.
Composing an iconic photograph like this is a combination of luck and observational skills combined with intuition. Henri Cartier-Bresson took this photograph through a peephole in a fence – no time to even look through the viewfinder. This print has arguably the most famous examples of a “decisive moment”; the silhouette is jumping over the puddle but his feet have yet to grace the surface – giving this photograph surrealist overtones that prompt questions about the water itself, such as depth. The reflection also creates interesting shapes. The man’s silhouetted legs form a diamond shape around the almost-white water. The ladder-shaped wood points to this white space, directing even further attention. The wrought-iron fence provides interesting lines to the piece, and the reflection is a good use of these lines. Timing is crucial and creates the mood of this image, fleeting spontaneity.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was an anti-traveler. He moved about, he didn’t travel. He took photo after photo totally preoccupied to capture a scene. He had the great ability to be invisible to those around him. Nothing could satisfy his visual appetite. He had a brilliant eye disciplined by a sense for geometry and instinct. This improvising, flexible approach was his way of life, not a technique. He slept in the cheapest hotels, ate frugally, and sucked the marrow out of life’s great spectacle. His tools were the Leica, Agfa film and his instinct. The combination of the three allowed him to capture the strange and disturbing realities of life. 
Henri could no longer live on his personal income. He would now have to live off of photography so long as it didn’t compromise his liberty.
In the beginning he was developing his own images. He had set up a makeshift darkroom in his bathroom. He made it clear he did this out of necessity not desire. One thing Henri Cartier-Bresson was not, was a master photo technician. He was never interested in the technical side of photography. Time spent under the enlarger was less time he had on the street. The darkroom wasn’t his world. He knew nothing about the chemistry of photography and didn’t want to know. Henri once said, “I am completely and have always been uninterested in the photographic process.” He hated color photography even more, saying: “It’s disgusting. I hate it! I’ve done it only when I’ve been to countries where it was difficult to go and they said, “If you don’t do color, we can’t use your things.” So it was a compromise, but I did it badly because I don’t believe in it.”
About this time Henri met his savior, Pierre Gassman. Gassman was passionate about photo but in the technical sense. His mother had been a radiologist and he was used to developing negatives. Gassman was appalled at Henri’s darkroom. Sometimes the water would be too cold and sometimes too hot and that would affect developing. Even the photo paper Henri used was wrong. It was the highest contrast available at the time in Europe. From that time on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s negatives and prints passed through the hands of Pierre Gassman. This relationship in due course morphed in to the leading processing lab in Europe, Pictorial Service.
Although Henri was not interested in the technical side, he kept an eye on it. From the beginning Henri had several hard, fast rules about his photos. First, no cropping of images, the vision was not to be touched. Only in the most extreme situations would he allow it. Spontaneity was the key to a successful image according to Cartier-Bresson. Second, there was to be no trickery in the image. The images had to be the highest quality possible.
Henri Cartier-Bresson had been working for less than a year and he was already starting to get noticed. In 1933 he had one of his earliest shows. It was a three-man show with images from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp, and Alfred Stieglitz in New York. Henri had maybe bit off more then he could chew because his images received a mediocre response. His images were dismissed as pretentious, and defective. He was out of step with the pictorialist spirit of the day.
Henri Cartier-Bresson made his first journey as an official photographer about this time. He was part of a Geological Expedition that set out for Mexico. On the way to Mexico the ship stopped in Havana, Cuba for a time. Henri wandered around town and sit in the Cafes reading letters from his father. His father wanted him to get a formal education and swiftly make a name for himself as he felt he couldn’t support his son through out his whole life. Henri’s father had passed on some mail to his son, one of which spoke to his “hopeless” photographic quality, It read:
I have received some interesting photos from you for my next book, but it seems to me that you could certainly have done better, and in any case the photographic quality is hopeless, if you’ll forgive me for saying so. Since you took the decision several years ago on my advice, to launch yourself into photography, I owe it to you to say what I think. Your compositions are never without significance, you always have an idea, but the photographic substance is not good. Some time I will show you documents that I have from elsewhere, and you will be astonished to see how quality of composition is combined with technical quality.
The expedition was to travel from Mexico through Central America and South America to Argentina. It was to be financed by the government of Mexico, but that swiftly ran into problems. As soon as Cartier-Bresson arrived in Mexico the group leader disappeared taking all of Henri’s money. Cartier-Bresson found himself thousands of miles away from home and penniless. The expedition ended before it began and the members went there own ways. Cartier-Bresson refused help from his father who was not pleased by the turn of events. He had his Leica and four rolls of film and an IOU for $1200.
Mexico was love at first site for Henri and he decided to stay. He would emulate Edward Weston and survive the Henri Cartier-Bresson way. He immediately got in to the café scene where he met all the local artists and poets. Poet, Langston Hughes invited Henri to live with him among the prostitutes and funeral parlors. They lived in one of the most notorious districts in Mexico. Police never went in to the area.
Henri spent his days with his Leica in hand looking for humanity in all its strange forms. One night while Henri was at a party he went exploring with a friend and stumbled upon two lesbians making love. The photo was full of life, eroticism, and emotion. Henri said this about his iconic photo:
I was very lucky. I had only to push the door open. Two lesbians were making love. It was so voluptuous, so sensual … I couldn’t see their faces. It was miraculous – physical love in all its fullness. Tonio (His Friend) grabbed a lamp, and I took several shots … There was nothing obscene about it. I could never have gotten them to pose – a matter of modesty.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was never more true to himself as during this time. He was in the unfriendliest of places with creative spirits. That was living life to the fullest for Henri. He enjoyed total liberty in Mexico and was comfortable in the bullring or slums. He sold some images to local journals and he had a side agreement with the New York Times for publication of any extra images. In Mexico he had a group show at the Palacio de Bellas Artes with Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravos. The two became fast friends and both were fascinated by the streets and enjoyed Eugene Atget’s work. The show ended his time in Mexico. As with Africa he had spent a year in country. He had survived loneliness, illness and poor living conditions. He wasn’t a rich man living among the poor, but a traveller absorbing a foreign world. He was happy. Cartier-Bresson left Mexico for New York in April of 1935.
In 1935 Henri started to think about giving up still photography and try his hand at documentary filmmaking. About this time he had another group show with Walker Evans and Manuel Alvarez Bravos. The moment Henri got to New York he looked for a room and ended up with a friend. They lived on apple pies, hamburgers and long conversations about politics and morality. His friend, Nicholas Nabakov was from the Russian upper class. The conversation often turned to communism. Nabakov was very anti-communist but Henri was more open to it.
Cartier-Bresson was a libertarian by nature but he loved to nourish his soul by reading “militant” articles by art historians Elie Faure and Elisee Reclus.  Henri never became a communist. He resisted attempts to get him to join. He felt sympathetic toward the cause but he had no illusions. He had a particular vision of himself and was determined to follow his vision to the end.
In New York Cartier-Bresson would wander Harlem by day and at night he went to the restaurants and jazz clubs. As with other places he befriended artists, musicians, and other photographers. One photographer he never respected was Paul Strand. He just never connected to Strand’s work. Strand’s concept of “Straight Photography” bothered Cartier-Bresson. Henri found his vision cold. He found Strand’s images of Streams, clouds, and rocks took the human element out of the picture. He was equally unenthusiastic about W. Eugene Smith. He found Smith’s vision fake. Cartier-Bresson thought the greatest American photographer was Walker Evans.
Henri began to feel stagnated in New York. He had been in New York a year and as with Africa and Mexico it was time to go. He left the U.S. never having explored it. About this time Life magazine was created and that couldn’t even dissuade him. He wanted to make films and he felt that was best accomplished back in Paris.
The moment Henri arrived back in Paris he was back in the café scene and could be found in his old haunts. His first two attempts to get into movies failed. On his third try he landed a job as an assistant director. He was hired by Jean Renoir to work on a propaganda film for the French Communist Party. Nobody was paid on the project.
Luckily urgent matters brought Henri back to photojournalism. He got married. His first marriage was unusual for the 1930s. Her name was Ratna Mohini and she was a Javanese dancer from Indonesia. She had a full figure, big dark eyes and was four years older then Henri. She had a good sense of humor and could be sarcastic. She was tough, and sensual. Initially they lived with Henri’s family and she grew close to the family.
Another major factor in bringing Henri back to still photography was civil war broke out in Spain. He wanted to be at the center of things. Henri was 28, married, and found himself working for Ce Suir newspaper. It was a left leaning newspaper supported by the communist party. It was a job and a salary. The new paper was published in the evenings.
An early assignment was to photograph deprived children and the paper published a photo a day and gave the proceeds to the family. He has press pass 3112 and he was proud of it. His images were credited to Henri Cartier. He still looked at the world in a different way but now he used different angles. He was a complete professional and worked hard.
He was still walking the streets on a daily basis but his vision had improved and he was laser focused on his subjects.
Working for Ce Suir, he often had to give up his Leica for a 9X9 plate camera because it was easier for the back office to retouch. He was given an important assignment to photograph the coronation of King George VI. The coronation was a big deal. The paper sent several teams to cover the event from all angles. As events unfolded Cartier-Bresson focused on the crowd watching the event. That was the best way in his mind to capture the soul of the nation. Henri took some of his best images away from the pomp.
Now a recognized photographer Henri became close several other photographers. Robert Doisneau, Robert Capa and Chim became his brothers-in-arms and his chosen family. They talked to each other, shared images, and influenced each other. This was the early beginning of the Magnum photo group.
The current popular publications of the time respected Cartier-Bresson. Time, Life, and many others all published Henri Cartier-Bresson images. He made a short foray back into film about this time, but that ended quickly with World War II.
World War II
Events in Europe were falling apart quickly. Henri was still in the reserve French infantry and was called up to the Army photography office. He was back in the military and a corporal in the film and photo unit of the French 3rd Army.
In May 1940 the French campaign began and the Germans stormed through France and soon captured Paris.
Henri barely had time to save his personal possessions. He buried his Leica on a farm near Vasges and destroyed most of the negatives he didn’t like. He put the saved negatives and images in biscuit tins and sent them to his father who stored them in a bank vault.
His photo group took pictures of bomb damage to the infrastructure of France. On June 22, 1940 Henri Cartier-Bresson was captured by the German army and became a prisoner of war. He was housed in Stalag VA and was given the number KG845. He was transferred to a camp in the Black Forrest near Heidelberg and was put to work on a labor gang. He laid railway lines, quarried stone, and manufactured cement. In the three years he was in the camp he had 30 jobs. It was a very difficult time for Henri. Few people in the camp knew who he was but many recognized his famous family name.
Everyone in the camp had to work or at least appeared to work. Henri became a master of working at not working, which was his resistance. He longed to have his Leica and could only take images in his mind. He kept himself sane by reading James Joyce and decoding letters from Ratna which were in Melayu He had the only French-Malaysian dictionary in the region.
He tried to escape three times and the prospect of freedom kept him going. During his three attempts, he was captured twice and spent time in a bamboo hut in solitary. During his darkest hours his imagination was all he had.
The third time he succeeded and he crossed back into France in February 1943. He had forged papers and train tickets provided him by a German sympathizer. They spent three months hiding out on a farm with other prisoners and Jews. Those three years were lost years for Henri and he remembered them with emotion his whole life. When asked what his greatest journey was, he would reply the three escapes.
He officially received the escapee medal and he was very proud of it. He had truly experienced man’s inhumanity to man. He had been held in solitary, beaten, and almost worked to death. The war changed Henri. His soul would always be marked by the experience.
While he was in hiding he had to do something to avert suspicion so he broke out his paints and started to work on a watercolor. The first thing he did when he finally felt comfortable with freedom was retrieved his precious Leica. For three years, he hadn’t taken a picture it was time to go back to work.
His first job was to do a series of portraits of famous French artists for a book. Henri Matisse was at the head of the list. Matisse was a challenge. He didn’t like being photographed but Henri had the power to make people forget. After finishing the shoots he returned to Paris but he forgot the negatives in the hotel. He had to cross France again, pass through numerous checkpoints in the faint hope of finding the negatives. He was still was an escapee and in danger of recapture. Luckily he found the negatives and returned to Paris safely.
Other artists he photographed for the project were Georges Braque, Paul Claudel, Georges Rouault and Pierre Bonnard. Some of his most famous portraits came out of this project.
Pierre Bonnard once asked Henri why he pressed the shutter at the precise time he did? Cartier-Bresson answered, why did you put that spot of yellow in that precise spot? Bonnard laughed. It all came down to vision.
When he was with Georges Braque the news of the Allied landing in Normandy came across the radio. Once he recovered from the shock his path forward in photography was set.
He was 35 and able to roam occupied France but he had to be careful, he was still an escapee. It was about this time he discovered Buddhism. During this time about 20 communist photographers started a communist press agency. They divided up Paris and each covered his own district. The bicycle was his only form of transportation and a film shortage was their biggest challenge. It was still possible to buy Agfa film, but Kodak was only available on the black market.
This period was photojournalism at its best form for Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was dedicated and focused. He photographed everything from resistance fighters, to schoolboys ripping up the roads to prevent the German’s escape. He was able to photograph the surrender of the German army. He was witnessing history and he understood. His proudest moment was the liberation of Paris, which he photographed. People were kissing each other and hugging. He was there for General De Gaulle’s triumphal march down the Champs-Elysees.
He was again anxious to preserve his work in case anything happened to him. He was an escapee, active in the resistance and in dangerous times. He contacted Pierre Braun the publisher that had commissioned the images of the artists. Henri sent Pierre a letter giving the publishing rights to his life’s work. As always there were conditions. The reproduction rights were to be owned by his wife and none of the images were to be cropped even in the slightest. His finest negatives were packed in silk paper and several round tins and were shipped to Braun.
After the liberation of Paris the danger of recapture subsided he felt safe to go back to his old haunts.
Ratna his wife had waited out the war on a farm near were Henri was hiding. Henri had the time to go back to the farm where he had hid out. He learned that he had avoided being arrested by the Gestapo by hours.
In spite of all he had accomplished throughout the war, the itch to move on soon began to grow. The war was over but would forever affect his life.
During 1945-46 it was like Henri was trying to make up for the past three years. Everyone that was anybody in post war Paris passed before Henri’s lens. Henri felt strongly about portraiture. He said, “You have to realize that, regardless of fame or fortune every individual may become a portrait. The face of the man on the street can be much more stimulating then celebrity. One must always expect the unexpected, the fateful time when a subject betrays himself.” If you exhibited Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images you would have a gallery not full of portraits, but chance encounters. For Henri, the portrait was the reflection of something unique, which would disappear. Henri felt all portraits were timeless, that’s why he never dated his images. As a portraitist Henri Cartier-Bresson could have assumed his place in history, instead he chose the world.
Back to New York
In 1946 Henri and his wife headed back to New York. What drew them back was a posthumous exhibition of Henri’s work put on by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. During the war, the museum had lost track of Cartier-Bresson and believed that he was dead. They tried to contact him, with no luck. Word finally got to Henri and he headed back to New York. Henri was proud of the exhibition and by the end of the two-month show his fame had grown immensely.
As Cartier-Bresson’s fame grew, Robert Capa gave Henri some sound advice which he followed his whole life.
Beware of Labels. They are comfortable but people will stick them on you and you will never be able to get rid of them. You will be labeled as the little surrealist photographer … Go forward with the label of photojournalist, and keep the rest deep in your heart. That is the one that will always bring you pleasure from your contact with whatever is happening in the world.
Henri Cartier-Bresson met John Malcolm Brinnin, a 30 year old poet who was looking for a partner for a book project. In Mid April 1947 Brinnin and Heni left for an epic 12,000 mile road trip across the U.S. They visited Washington D.C., Chicago, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Houston, and Los Angeles among others. Max Ernst wondered how he would shoot the Grand Canyon in black and white.
During the trip he visited some celebrities and made portraits of them. He visited his old friend, Jean Renoir in California. What he mostly focused on was racism, poverty, and injustice. In other words he was a man with an agenda. Henri fascinated Brinnin. Brinnin was impressed with Henri’s vision. He kept a detailed journal throughout the trip mostly about Henri. Brinnin had to put up with Henri’s moaning about speed limit, and the car. Henri was true to form on the trip. Brinnin put up with it until they got home. The book project was rejected and Brinnin was furious. Henri did eventually publish the book years later in 1991.
During the trip, Henri missed an historic event, the official beginning of Magnum Photo Inc.
Magnum was a photographic co-operative owned and run by its member photographers. They are still in existence today. They have had 91 photographers over the years, but in the beginning Magnum consisted of Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Szymin (Chim), George Rodgers and William Vandivert. Vandivert left quickly and that took it down to four to cover the world. From the beginning stories had to be told. Henri was a full-time photojournalist professional. He still saw himself as an artist but now he would be governed by a deadline. During the early years of Magnum Henri traveled the world. The founders of Magnum divided up the world. Capa and Chim took Europe; George Rodger took Africa and the Middle East; Henri took Asia. Henri was drawn to Asia because of his wife Ratna.
In August 1947 Henri and Ratna boarded a freighter bound for India. India was to be his base of operation as he travelled Asia. From his first days in Bombay, Henri fell in love with India. The rhythms and culture drew him in. For Henri the photos were already there he just needed to coax them out. There was a great image around every corner.
India had just earned its independence from Britain and was in turmoil. One of his early assignments was to photograph Mahatma Gandhi. He visited Gandhi at the home he was staying at. Henri arrived by bicycle. He was granted admission and was only hoping for a shot of Gandhi’s toothless grin. Instead he photographed him from behind focusing on his hands. The composition was magical. The image was fateful as it was the last image of Gandhi. Those hands told the story of Gandhi’s amazing life. Before leaving, Henri showed Gandhi his catalogue of photographs from the MOMA exhibition. Gandhi was very interested and took the time to look through the whole book. The audience ended and Henri left and began his journey home. Less than an hour later Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. The man shot him three times at point blank range. By the time Henri reached home people were running in the streets yelling, “Gandhi is dead, they’ve killed Gandhi.”
Henri raced back to the house and began a sleepless night that stretched into days. The country was in shock. Gandhi’s remains were covered in roses and laid on the roof of his house. The crowd around the house was massive. Henri managed to get next to a window of the house but no further. The father of the Indian nation was no more.
Those first hours despite the immense crowds Henri managed to get a few photographs. Most of the images were blurry. Henri spent the next several days photographing and could be found everywhere. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the 2 million people that witnessed the funeral a few days later. His images from that time captured the rhythm of the crowd and the grief of the ordinary person. Cartier-Bresson was on the train that took Gandhi’s ashes to the Ganges. During this time Henri was caught in a storm of emotions but he captured the details at all levels. When life returned to normal Henri went back to the streets.
During his time in Asia, life was so intense that Henri never saw the images he took. He didn’t have time. He would develop his film, make contact sheets and write the captions off and send off the images. The films were sent back to magnum and sold for publication. Magnum handled all the behind the scenes work which freed Henri to photograph.
When magazine editors learned that Cartier-Bresson had photographed Gandhi’s death a bidding war broke out for the images. Magnum was besieged with requests.
When he left India, he didn’t go very far because India had become another adopted homeland for Henri, just like Mexico. He spent time in Pakistan, and Burma.
It was in Burma that Henri found his mojo. Liberated from British Colonialism less then a year prior and like India there was great turmoil. The communists were taking over. Henri photographed the most important figures of the time. As with other places, he took risks, poking his nose in places it didn’t belong. He expected to find the unexpected around every corner, and he did. Henri spent three months in Burma and he traveled freely in spite of the great danger.
One day he was near the pagodas of Mandalay and he received a message from Life Magazine. “The Kuomintang can’t last much longer, can you travel to China?”
For three years China had been torn apart from Civil War. The end was near for the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. From the end of 1948 Henri was privileged to watch the downfall of one nation and the birth of Communist China. Henri described this time in China:
FROM ONE CHINA
TO THE OTHER
In early December of 1948 I took a plane to Rangoon, in Burma, and went from there to China. I had been in Beijing for twelve days when the city was taken by Mao Zedong’s armies, and I left the capital on the very last plane, which had to take off in a vertical spiral, because the Communists had begun to surround the airport.
Once I’d arrived in Shanghai, I looked for a way to get into the zones that were controlled by the People’s Army. They were all blocked, but I managed to get to Hong Kong on the British sloop The Amethyst, and to ask Huang Hua, representative of the People’s Republic in Hong Kong (and future Minister of Foreign Affairs), for a pass to Beijing. He told me extremely politely that as he was neither a travel agent nor a consulate, he could only send an underground letter to facilitate this for me.
To cross the border, I chose the region of Qingdao, in the Shandong peninsula, in the north. I’d heard that missionaries were having little trouble using this route to join up with their followers. Why not follow their example, load my bags onto a cart and push it in front of me as they did?
I was just about to leave when I met two Americans, a journalist and a businessman, who wanted to take the same route, but in a jeep. Leaving the Kuomintang soldiers behind us, the three of us set off toward adventure. There was a terrible snowstorm, and we could barely distinguish the roads from the fields. After some time in this no-man’s-land, we glimpsed shadows moving about in the surrounding landscape, between the rises of tombs. I got out and walked in front of the jeep, waving a white handkerchief at the end of a stick and my French passport, which we considered our best safeguards in that white and disturbing solitude.
After twelve kilometers of this, we reached a village where a detachment of the People s Army was billeted. The young commissar of the detachment was the only one who spoke English—he had cousins in San Francisco, London, and Hong Kong. He thought our expedition foolhardy, and asked for instructions from higher up. In the meantime, they put us up in a farm where we slept by the stove, and it was very interesting to observe the life of the villagers. After five weeks, they asked us to go back where we came from. If I’ve narrated this escapade in some detail, it’s because I was obviously unable to bring back any photographs and so this story is my only journal.
I returned to find Shanghai in complete disorder. I left the city to accompany some Buddhists who were going on a pilgrimage for peace to the sanctuaries of Hangzhou. I learned that the front was quickly approaching the Chang River. I hurried to Nanjing, capital of the Kuomintang. At that point it was every man for himself, and you often saw entire families crammed into rickshaws with bundles of their belongings. The Communist troops would be crossing the Chang any day now; you could feel it in the air.
Life magazine, knowing that I had been to Hong Kong on the British ship The Amethyst (which was then anchored on the Chang), cabled me to see if I might ask for permission to photograph the passage of the Communist troops from the boats deck. It occurred to me to speak about it with the military attaché to Chiang Kai-shek, Colonel Guillermaz (future ambassador under Mao Zedong), who said to me: “I have no advice
for you… but you might be better off not going.” Words well taken: the Communists sank the boat. I managed to keep photographing, as the Communists were allowing foreigners to continue working. I saw the great spectacle of the population of Nanjing—little shopkeepers and businessmen, full of traditional good humor— dazed and nervous with the arrival of this Spartan army of peasants from on foot, crudely outfitted and not even speaking the same dialect. They were chanting their Three Commandments: 1) “Don’t take even the needle and thread;” 2) “Think of the people as your family;” and 3) “You will give back everything that you have taken ” People cheered for them, but with a certain unease, because in China soldiers had always been considered backwoods marauders, and so the army was looked down upon.
The frontiers were blocked, but a ship was sent to pick up any foreigners who wanted to get out of the country. As I was leaving, I had to show the censors my recent photographs. None of them raised any great objection thankfully. I set off then at the end of September 1949 for Shanghai, and arrived a few days later in Hong Kong. And there, after ten months, my first trip to China and its photographic journal ended.
I was in Nanjing in 1949 when the Liberation Army arrived. At that time, I had the impression that those men were still holding on to the ideal of the prestige of that colossal epic, the Long March. Today, after Tiananmen Square, it is the great ignominy of the Chinese Army to have tried to save, with the blood of students, a dying regime.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s China images showed a nation in conflict on every level. His pictures showed a kind of serenity mixed with beggars and blind men. There was misery everywhere and above all else the images showed the tension of a people facing a very rough future. As always, Henri seemed to be in all the right places at the right time. He stayed away from the story telling and focused on the private truths of every day people. Henri described some of his challenges in China:
I had the impression that I was on an island within China. The people are so lively, and I was so curious about everything that it made this country the most difficult of all to photograph. To work properly, a photographer needs at his disposal about as much space as a referee has around the boxers. But what would he be able to do if he had 15 kids between him and the ropes? At the bird market in Peking, I had 50 under my feet, and they never stopped pushing one another and pushing me.
Maybe Henri’s best image from China was an image of people waiting in line to get money out of a bank In Shanghai. He said this about the image,
Shanghai, December 1948. The Gold Rush. Outside the banks on the Bund vast queues have formed, spilling over into the neighboring streets and blocking the traffic. About ten people must have died in the crush. The Kuomintang had decided to share out certain gold reserves at 40 grams per head. Some people waited more than 24 hours to try and exchange their banknotes. The police half-heartedly maintained order.
With the images he took in China, Henri’s captions were extremely precise and detailed. He even went to the extreme of having the captions stamped on the back of his photos. Henri said,
I want the captions to consist strictly of information with no sentimental comments or irony of any kind. I want them to be honest information, and there are sufficient elements of that in the pages I am sending you. I have complete faith in you, but I would be very grateful if you would make everything perfectly clear to our clients in this regard. Let us allow the photos to speak for themselves, and for the love of Nadar [the great nineteenth-century photographer], don’t let us allow the people sitting behind desks to add on things they have not seen. I regard these captions as a personal matter, as Capa did with his reportage.
Henri Cartier-Bresson spent two years in Asia and had witnessed some of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. When he left China it was difficult for Henri. His wife had been by his side through the whole experience, but it was time to go home. Henri said this about his time in China,
I must have taken some 850 Films with my Leica, and written down all my impressions recto and verso in my notebooks … our only secret was to move slowly and to live with people. Furthermore. I benefited from one enormous advantage: the help of my wife.
After leaving China, he took the long way home. He spent two weeks in Hong Kong, one week in Singapore and several weeks traveling through Indonesia. He spent two months in Iran and a short trip to Iraq before arriving back in France.
It was the summer of 1950 and Henri was 42 years old. Asia had been good to him. He won the US Camera Prize for his coverage of Gandhi’s death. He also won the Overseas Press Club for his pictures in China. Henri’s work was now widely recognized, and honored. He was at the top of his profession.
The Decisive Moment
Magnum was becoming a force in photojournalism, and life was good for Henri. He was offered a book deal that would consist of 126 photos with no captions. He was asked to write an essay that would be used as the forward of the book. He was instructed that it should be a personal reflection on his concept of photography. They asked him, “How do you make your pictures.” Needless to say, Henri was not excited or pleased. He answered the question with a simple answer, “I don’t know, that’s not important.” It wasn’t important to Henri Cartier-Bresson. He hated this kind of writing and concept. His photos were from instinct and watching. They wanted a long essay on a subject he avoided talking about. Robert Capa talked him in to writing the essay, saying, “If it brings you money, you’ll spend it, if it brings you prestige that will help you.”
The Decisive Moment became an instant sensation and Henri got the label Robert Capa had warned about. Henri Cartier-Bresson became the photographer of the decisive moment. Everything in the essay revealed a piece of the man behind Henri Cartier-Bresson.
He had developed the idea into six sections, reportage, subject, composition, color, technique and client. The Decisive Moment had such force behind it that it changed photojournalism. One reviewer called it, “the most intelligent and most lucid texts ever written on the subject.” Photographer Walker Evans said about the book, “It has something that is rather rare in a piece of this nature, it is totally devoid of inanities and of ego.”
In an excerpt from The Decisive Moment Henri gives us insight to his wisdom,
I have talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography. There are many kinds. Certainly the hiding snapshot carried in the back of a wallet, the glossy advertising catalog, and the great range of things in between are photography. I don’t attempt to define it for everyone. I only attempt to define it to myself:
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms, which give that event its proper expression.
When Henri came back from Asia he asked Magnum for his back pay. He was told by Robert Capa, “there was almost nothing left, we are in fact almost bankrupt. After the shock wore off, Henri said, “What was a little money between friends and mutual interests.”
Magnum was a struggling enterprise but it was Henri’s home away from home. Magnum was limping along and then took two massive blows. In 1954 Robert Capa was killed while on assignment in Vietnam. It was a devastating personal blow for Henri. Capa was the heart and soul of Magnum and it left a large void in Henri’s life. Two years after Robert Capa died, Chim was killed while on assignment in Egypt. Another of Henri’s brother-in-arms was gone and Henri was utterly devastated. Robert Capa was in many ways was a mentor and conscious for Henri Cartier-Bresson and Henri could never remember Chim without getting emotional.
In the summer of 1954 Henri was the first photographer to get a visa for the Soviet Union. Henri talked about his time,
THE PEOPLE OF MOSCOW
“There is a visa for you and your wife. When can we leave? As soon as you wish.” The news was too startling not to be a little upsetting. Nothing was really ready, though we had put in our visa applications eight months previously; waiting ever since, we had practically lost hope. Hope, though, had risen again two months before, when I learned that an album of my photographs, The Decisive Moment which I had sent to Moscow to push my visa request, had been favorably received there.
As our passports were being stamped at the Consulate in Paris, I was told that my films would have to be developed over there, so I rushed to buy the chemicals I was used to; I rushed also to get a letter of credit from the Office des Changes and some lntourist cheques and our railway tickets.
Two days later, on July 8th, 1954, we were in the express train that was to take us straight to Prague. Neither my wife nor myself like to travel by air. I had not been in Czechoslovakia since 1930. We stayed overnight in Prague and the next morning we took possession of a sleeper on the Prague-Moscow express. It was all-new to us, from the samovar at the end of the corridor, with its two attendants, to the green curtains in velours frappe (velvet damask) of which we were to see much later in Russia. The train sped through the whole length of Czechoslovakia and after one day we reached the Russian border station.
This part of the trip lasted two and a half days in all, with the whole last day in Russia. When we arrived in Moscow, we felt a little like peasants in a large city, so great was the sensation of discovery. We wanted to see everything, know everything. I had never been in Russia before and was eager to start working at once. I was not sure, however, if I would have the facilities to photograph as freely as I am accustomed to elsewhere. In Paris, I had been told that a special permission was necessary to take pictures and I was afraid that, to secure it, I would have to enter into long explanations. My photographs might have suffered from all this.
But in Moscow, I was told that foreigners could photograph everything freely with the exception of military objectives, railway centers, panoramic views of cities, and certain public monuments, for which an official authorization was required.
I was asked what we would like to see. I explained that my main interest was in people and that I would like to see them in the streets, in shops, at work, at play, in every visible aspect of daily life, wherever enough goes on so that I could approach them on tip-toes and take my photographs without disturbing them.
On that basis, we had laid out a plan. My photographic methods are not very common in Russia. Besides, neither my wife nor I speak Russian. We were given an interpreter. Every morning, he came to fetch us at our hotel and took us to wherever we wanted to go. Whenever we needed authorizations, he took care of the matter for us. He was very efficient and helpful. Often, in the street, people, startled by a foreigner bluntly snapping pictures right in their faces, came up to me. As I did not understand them, I stammered the only Russian sentence I had learned: “Tovarich perevodchik suda” (the comrade interpreter is back there) then I would salute and proceed with my work, while the interpreter explained things. Soon, they stopped paying attention to me. In that manner, I was able to photograph a great many people, living and behaving just the way they would have if I had not been there. Before my trip to Moscow, I had already seen a large number of photographs of Soviet Russia. Yet my first reaction was one of surprise and discovery. I felt from my point of view, the subject was still fresh and untouched—photographically speaking. So I tried to capture a straightforward image of the people of Moscow going about their daily life, to catch them in their ordinary acts and their human relationships. I fully realize how fragmentary that image is, but so much is certain: it represents my visual discovery faithfully.
Back in Paris, I was greatly interested by the questions we were asked. At times, I could give no answer. Some people began to ask: “How are things there, really?” and then, without giving me a chance to reply, go on to develop their own views. Others utter an “Oh, you just came back from there!” and shut themselves up in an embarrassed and wary silence—as people do at family meetings, when a particularly burning subject comes up. But to those who ask me, “What did you see?” I reply: “Let my eye speak for me.” These pictures are meant for them.
The project brought in $40,000 for Magnum. After returning from Russia he traveled again to Mexico (1963) England (1965) North Africa (1967) and nine years after leaving China he returned to explore what had changed.
In 1965 Henri found himself in Japan covering political unrest. Opposition to the war in Vietnam had increased and the Communists and Socialists were in turmoil.
The most lasting image that came out of his time in Japan was an image of a funeral for a Kabuki actor. People were showing their grief in a Japanese (dignified) sort of way. The image was a combination of poetry and prose with a rhythm and dignity.
Whenever in a country, especially the Communist countries Cartier-Bresson always adopted the customs and restrictions of the culture. To achieve what he wanted he always seemed to turn the restrictions to his advantage.
Henri never cared about what his critics thought; he simply moved on and didn’t bother. Henry was a legend and he simply didn’t care about the criticism. He lived by the motto, “do what you must, come what may.” His legend opened doors and always preceded him. People feared his judgment but he usually let his photographs speak more than words. He had a great influence and his opinion was sought after. This was his legend as the Decisive Moment photographer.
Life Magazine approached Henri about going to Cuba. His time in Cuba focused on the man-on-the-street, the architecture, and the prostitute. He photographed Russian advisors explaining how to use a tractor and workers rolling cigars. He tracked down Che Guevara and tried to get Fidel Castro but didn’t succeed. Henri said this about his time in Cuba, “I am a visual man. I watch, watch, watch. I understand things through my eyes. This means I had to put Cuba—which I had not seen in thirty years—in the rangefinder of my mind, so to speak, and correct for parallax so as not to get a false vision.”
By this time Magnum was really struggling after the deaths of Robert Capa and Chim. Henry had become Magnum. In 1966 he announced he was leaving Magnum although the agency would continue to hold his legal rights and archives.
In 1968 Henri published a memo expressing his feelings about why he was leaving Magnum.
Having for many years been in profound disagreement with the direction that Magnum was taking, and in my capacity as one of the two surviving founders, I asked you to be so kind as to grant me the status of ‘contributor’, hoping that by keeping my distance I might cause a cathartic shock in the organization. You replied that I should wait till I am 60 years old to become a contributor – but I do not know when I shall reach that age, or what you mean by 60 years.
In the meantime, I have observed that with a certain number of my associates the gap continues to grow between the spirit of the Magnum that we created and that of the present. I have profound respect for the personal reasons and contingencies that motivate them, but I do not wish our past to serve as a cover for a photographic spirit that is not the one which governed the great achievements of Magnum.
I am therefore obliged to ask you to create two associations, which will put an end to the current ambiguity and the unhealthy situation from which we are all suffering: a small, traditional group, in the initial spirit, devoted to living photography, editorial and industrial reportage, and also souvenir photographs; on the other side, an organization devoted to fussier photography, more inventive, glorious and weighty – the name of Magnum being reserved for the first group, and a name like ‘Mignum’ or ‘Mignon’ […] for the other, with ties of friendship linking the two branches.
This would allow us to respect one another, with photographers co-opting others, and I can even think of a case where in my view two photographers could – if they wished – belong to both groups, in a proportion to be determined. Our lawyers and administrative services and accountants will ensure that the little group does not devour the big one – or vice versa.
Should it be that this system – which in my opinion would preserve the spirit of the founders and of a certain number of photographers – cannot be accepted, I would find myself under the extremely painful obligation of having purely and simply, immediately and mellifluously to resign, with all my greetings, congratulations and condolences.
Henri gradually distanced himself from Magnum but he was not tired of photography. About this time he broke up with his wife, Ratna. After 30 years together he still loved her but he felt her domineering attitude created tension. Henri added his own tension to the relationship; it was not all on Ratna.
In 1967 Henri took another step towards “sainthood” when he had his second exhibition in the Louvre. 200 images were displayed, some of them enlarged up to 6.5 feet.
His whole life Henri Cartier-Bresson was consistent. He had a vision of the world and he saw no reason to deviate from what made him successful.
Gave Up Photography
He announced that he was giving up photography; he was closing off this part of his life and concentrating on drawing. He withdrew from Magnum and finally divorced Ratna as they had been separated for many years. His path was set.
Three years later he married Martine Frank. Frank was a photographer and 30 years younger than Henri. She was Belgian and from a rich family with deep ties to the art world. Henri had a daughter with Martine. With Martine and Melanie (his daughter) Henri finally started to find peace in life. He was desperate to escape his fame now. All he wanted was a quiet life.
He kept his beloved Leica and continued to do portraits on a limited basis. Many of Henri’s colleagues were angry at his decision to give up photo. He had betrayed photography and they were furious. Henri felt like he had to explain his decision. He had done all he could do in photo and drawing is what he wanted to do now. Drawing forced Henri to master his vision and control his life. It was his way of giving up fame.
Henri always avoided talking to other photographers unless they were friends. He always hated talking about photography but his opinions were sought after even more after he gave up photo. Photography was his ex-wife and it was like talking about divorce to Henri. He just withdrew from the photo world.
What kind of photographer was Henri? His vision was everything to him. Henri never paid much attention to technique. He left that up to the experts. Pictorial Services and his longtime friend Pierre Gassman did all his developing and printing. They knew he didn’t like contrasty or soft images. He wanted purity.
The tools of his legend were his Leicas. His Leica’s had no distance meter or light meter. Their viewfinder was rectangular which created a view that helped Henri. The lens was 50mm 3.5 fixed to the body. He didn’t want it any other way. A longer or wider lens would have distorted his vision. With his Leica he felt like he had perfect harmony. He covered the chrome with black tape to be more concealed. He never used flash. To Henri the flash was like shooting off a gun in the middle of a library.
Physically Henri Cartier-Bresson had a rosy complexion, blue eyes, thin hair and a natural elegance. He had survived several serious illnesses. He had eye surgery twice and heart surgery twice. Old age slowed him down a little but always remained vigorous. He never wore a tie. He was hyper and never quiet. He was demanding and could be very controlling. He didn’t like to be treated how he treated others. He had no time for people without real life experience.
Socially he was unpredictable and cynical and could be perverse. He could be a little childlike and he loved to shock and surprise but he also liked rules and limits. He did not believe in God or the devil. He had old world tastes and was romantic. His second marriage lasted 40 years. Above all else he was genuine and had an enthusiasm for life.
He rarely took nudes and if he did only headless so the model couldn’t be identified. He collected knives and books.
He had no clue how many pictures he took in his career, and he didn’t want to know. The best estimates were over half a million over a 30-year career.
In his later years, he traveled some in Europe. He was always hands-off when it came to his exhibitions. He only asked that he be allowed one hour before the opening to experience the show alone.
He hated honors but never refused awards. He did not like people getting into his memories, but if you asked he would answer. He respected privacy and was quietly generous. He once signed a Leica and auctioned it off for charity. It brought $40,000 dollars.
He could be blunt with his praise and criticism, being a legend had its perks. Henri Cartier-Bresson would always judge an image by how it stimulated his emotions.
Towards the end he lived off of the sale of his prints to collectors. He would just put his signature on the print. He considered it immoral because it was not work. Rue Mouffetard was his best seller with about 30 others being consistently in demand. As he got older, he felt he was less and less a photographer. About the only photography he did were weddings and special events for friends in rural areas that had no other photographer.
Towards the end he never stopped going to the Louvre. He would wander the halls and sketch the masterpieces he found. His favorite composer was Bach and he was a Leo.
Until the very end, he was always looking, drawing and doing a little photography. One of his last images was a rare self-portrait.
Henri felt that we died every night and were born again every morning. For Henri, dying was simply a matter of going to the darkroom for good. He was not afraid of death, but he was afraid of pain. In the end he waited for death so he could make his last escape. Henry was ready to go; he was worn out.
Henri Cartier-Bresson quietly died on August 3, 2004. Ten people were at his funeral. It was a simple service attended by family and close friends. He was almost 96 years old.
The news of Henri’s death went worldwide. It was almost like a head of state had passed. Photographer, Richard Avedon said: “He was the Tolstoy of photography with profound humanity, he was the witness of the 20th century.”
Most papers covered his death with lengthy coverage. With the death of Henri Cartier-Bresson it closed the 20th century. The “eye of the 20th century” was gone, but his legend would go on forever.
I can count myself as one that revered Henri Cartier-Bresson. From my earliest days of photography I was aware of The Decisive Moment and studied Henri’s work. It wasn’t worship like it was for many people, for me it was more like respect and pleasure. Like I said at the beginning of this history, I’m not sure we would have been friends in real life. If Henri Cartier-Bresson was anything, he was consistent, but he was too much a bundle of contrasts for me. He could be grumpy, and generous; He could be romantic or intolerant depending on his moods. His philosophy of life is difficult for me to relate to but I greatly respect his vision.
I am also very grateful for Pierre Assouline and his wonderful biography of Henri. He really made this mythical figure come alive for me and I really connected to his work. If you get a chance to pick up his book, you won’t be disappointed.
Special Note: Thank You to Sherrie Markman my cousin and editor. She is my rim protector and makes me look good when my terrible English ability pops up it’s ugly head.
 Henry Cartier-Bresson: A Biography
 Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Mind’s Eye: Aperture Inc. New York, 1999.
 Pierre Assouline. Henri Cartier-Cartier-Bresson: A Biography: Thames & Hudson Inc. New York, 2005. Translated from the French by David Wilson.
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 Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1932): Analytical Paper by Kaitly[Online] Available. <http://thecoastisneverclear.blogspot.com/2007/03/behind-gare-saint-lazare-henri-cartier.html>.
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 Henri Cartier Bresson, ‘There are no Maybes’: New York Times [Online] Available. June 21, 2013.< http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/cartier-bresson-there-are-no-maybes/>.
 New York Times. There are No Maybes.
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 Henry Cartier-Bresson: A Biography