Monthly Archives: December 2016

Henri Cartier-Bresson, inheritor and photographer

The Inheritance Project

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”

“Born in France in 1908, Henri Cartier-Bresson studied painting with Andre Lhote in the late 1920s and made a serious commitment to photography in the early 1930s. [ed: Cartier-Bresson’s work as a photographer was made possible by his father, a successful industrialist, who wanted his son to be free to pursue his passion.] Some of his most famous images, made in France, Italy, and Spain, date from these early years. . . . He returned to Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War to make a documentary film on hospitals in Republican Spain. In 1940 he was captured by the Germans and spent three years in prisoner-of-war camps before escaping. He then worked with the Paris underground, and filmed a documentary on the homecoming of French prisoners of war.

“In 1947, two years after the apocalypse ended that was called the Second World War, Cartier-Bresson . . . co-founded the photography agency Magnum. The world’s most prestigious photographic agency was formed by four photographers – Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson [ed: two of the four] . . . had been very much scarred by the conflict and were motivated both by a sense of relief that the world had somehow survived and the curiosity to see what was still there. They created Magnum . . . to reflect their independent natures as both people and photographers – the idiosyncratic mix of reporter and artist that continues to define Magnum, emphasizing not only what is seen but also the way one sees it.

“Back in France, I was completely lost,” Cartier-Bresson explained in an interview. . . “At the time of the liberation, the world having been disconnected, people had a new curiosity. I had a little bit of money from my family, which allowed me to avoid working in a bank. I had been engaged in looking for the photo for itself, a little like one does with a poem. With Magnum was born the necessity for telling a story. For the next two decades his work in photography continued to take him all over the world—including India, Burma, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, the U.S.S.R., Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and Japan.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographer:

“Back in France, I was completely lost,” Cartier-Bresson explained in an interview. . . “At the time of the liberation, the world having been disconnected, people had a new curiosity. I had a little bit of money from my family, which allowed me to avoid working in a bank. I had been engaged in looking for the photo for itself, a little like one does with a poem. With Magnum was born the necessity for telling a story. For the next two decades his work in photography continued to take him all over the world—including India, Burma, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, the U.S.S.R., Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and Japan.”

It is clear from this brief summary that Cartier-Bresson was committed to revealing war and other kinds of injustice to the world.

He worked using a tiny Leica, so small that he was able to photograph people without their knowing it was happening. His pictures are both spontaneous and beautifully composed, which is remarkable when one considers that, as he said, “photography is the simultaneous recognition of a second, of the significance of an event.” For example,one photo is titled “Gestapo informer recognized by a woman she had denounced. Deportation camp, Dessau, Germany, 1945” Seeing this picture the intense anger on the face of the woman who had been imprisoned and the shamed face of the informer, is remarkable. I wonder: How did Cartier-Bresson happen to be present in this place and at this moment in time?

Almost all of his photographs show people in motion —children playing, homeless men  in the street, children running—moments in time. The vitality of the images he captured is astonishing.

This phenomenal productivity and the scope of his work would not have been possible without his father’s financial support, although Cartier-Bresson was not wealthy in the conventional sense of the word.

After a long career, Cartier-Bresson died in 2004.