Originally trained as a painter in the studio of the Cubist artist and sculptor André Lhote, Henri Cartier-Bresson turned to photography out of frustration with his early painting. Inspired by his interaction with young members of the Surrealist movement at the Café Cyrano in Paris, Cartier-Bresson recognized photography’s ability to “trap life,” and to “fix eternity in an instant.” In 1932, at the age of twenty-four, Henri Cartier-Bresson acquired a hand-held Leica camera, a tool that would accompany him for the rest of his career. The Leica became an “extension of his eye” and enabled the artist to combat the “formal and unnatural behavior” of those who were aware of being photographed. The compact size of the Leica allowed Cartier-Bresson to break down any distinction “between living and working” and developed into a stealth companion for recording his new photographic experiments.
From 1932-34, Cartier-Bresson traveled in Italy, Spain, and Mexico, seeking out the world of the “dispossessed, the marginal, and the illicit,” a world far from his bourgeois Paris upbringing, but a world which he eagerly accepted as his own: “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, to preserve life in the act of living.” Visually, this seminal period in Cartier-Bresson’s career fused both Surrealist and Cubist technique. As early as 1938, a reviewer in Time Magazine described Cartier-Bresson’s work as “magical” and possessing a “hidden and poetic truth.” Peter Galassi, writing in his introduction to Henri Cartier-Bresson: Early Work, states that Cartier-Bresson’s pre-War photographs possess the “unpredictable psychic force of straight photography” while simultaneously depicting the “street as an arena of adventure and fantasy only thinly disguised by the veneer of daily routine.”
Cartier-Bresson’s first published photojournalist assignment featured the crowds gathered to witness the coronation of King George VI of England in 1937. He later joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit when World War II broke out in September 1939. During the Battle of France, Cartier-Bresson was taken prisoner by German soldiers and spent 35 months in Nazi POW camps. His first two attempts at escape failed, serving stints in solitary confinement as punishment. A third and final attempt was successful, with the artist hiding on a farm in Touraine before obtaining false papers allowing him to travel freely in occupied France.
Following the war in 1947, Henri Cartier-Bresson founded the Magnum Photo Agency along with Robert Capa, David Seymour, and George Rodger. A picture agency owned collectively by its members, Magnum was defined by Cartier-Bresson as “a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually." Splitting coverage of the globe amongst its founding members, Cartier-Bresson was dispatched to the Far East to report from India and China. Between 1948-1950, Cartier-Bresson received international recognition for his coverage of the final stages of the Chinese Civil War and the assassination of Mahatma Ghandi.
In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson published his first book, the influential Images á la sauvette, with cover illustration by Henri Matisse. In his 4,500-word preface to the book, Cartier-Bresson quoted the 17th Century Cardinal de Retz, “"Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" ("There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment"). Dick Simon, of Simon & Schuster titled the United States edition of the book, The Decisive Moment, which developed into a way of seeing forever associated with the artist.
In several different trips to the United States in the mid 50’s and 60’s, Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed notable portrait subjects: Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Richard Nixon, and William Faulkner, amongst others.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was first exhibited in 1933 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. He has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Galerie Beyeler, Basel, and the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris. Henri Cartier-Bresson passed away in 2004 in Montjustin, France at the age of 94.