(16/55) Henri-Cartier Bresson - photographer

Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004)
photograph by Arnold Newman (1947) copyright by Arnold Newman/respective copyright holders  

This is a slightly unusual appraisal of Cartier-Bresson's work & life. It's in 2 parts. This first section is about his evolution from privileged child to working photographer.

The second section examines his first major book, The Decisive Moment and looks at how this work has come to define the perception of Cartier-Bresson's photography.

BIOGRAPHY

Henri Cartier-Bresson was an unusual photographer in many respects. Most photographers of great talent often come to photography after careers in other fields. Or come to photography by accident. Cartier-Bresson was given his first camera (a Box Brownie) at a very young age. And as his parents were quite well off, he had little in the way of constraints to inhibit what he could take or (crucially) how often or how much to photograph.
His parents lived in a wealthy neighbourhood in Paris (near Le Pont de l'Europe.) so the young Henri had financial support to independently develop his interests. Interests which included photography but also drawing.

Like a lot of young men born to parents who were businessmen or women, there were expectations the young Henri would continue in the family business. But like so many youngsters, starting out in art, he was restless and the thought of working in an office and in a business overseen by strict parents, was not (one assumes) one he relished.
He tried studying music (apparently unsuccessfully ) and also painting. His early interests were in classical Renaissance art but also the work of contemporary artists. Trying to create art, he was drawn to surrealism but was frustrated by his efforts at painting, destroying the majority of his early work.

Inspired by the work of Martin Munkacsi and one photograph in particular 'Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika', Cartier-Bresson began photography as a full time pursuit in 1931.


copyright by Martin Munkacsi / respective copyright owners

His photographs were first exhibited (just 1 year later) at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and then in 1934 in Mexico (in a show alongside Manuel Alvarez Bravo.)


 Quai Saint-Bernard, Paris (1932)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Brussels (1932)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Cordoba (1933)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Barrio Chino, Barcelona (1933)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Dieppe (1929)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

That same year, HCB met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann (aka Robert Capa). Capa is rumoured to have advised 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.... "

Interesting advice if true. Moving from a somewhat narrow 'art' world perspective to creating work that fell under the heading of photojournalism was good timing. HCB was working during the golden age of the picture magazine so there was a ready market for all kinds of journalistic/documentary style images. Including Cartier-Bresson's, which displayed a unique pictorial sense from the outset.

Mexico (1934)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Cuauhctemocztin street, Mexico City (1934) 
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Mexico (1934)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Just 4 years after starting work, HCB's photography was being shown in the US, in a group show alongside Walker Evans and (again) Manuel Alvarez Bravo. All of whom shared an affinity for finding images that had surrealistic overtones, either deliberate or unconsciously.
While he was in New York for the show, he was hired by Harper's Bazaar to shoot fashion. The results may not have lead to a career as a fashion photographer but he was by no means snobbish about accepting work assignments.

While it's by no means guaranteed that by travelling you will become a 'better' photographer. Cartier-Bresson seems to have used the opportunity given to him, while working on assignments, to consistently snatch small moments in otherwise quite mundane (but remote) locales & situations. Sometimes the impact appears purely graphic, as in the image below of figures artfully arranged on ice.
Sometimes the view, as shown n Lisbon, Portugal (1955) merely serves as an excuse for watching the interplay between a group of individuals.

Always interesting. Not always masterpices of photography. But the evidence of a restless mind. Continually looking at the world around him for source material. Material that would be shaped & given form in the book that was to define his legacy, The Decisive Moment in 1952.

For more on the Decisive Moment refer to the section below Portraits.


Suzdal, USSR (1972)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Alpe d-Huez, France (1969)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson/respective copyright owners
Lisbon, Portugal (1955)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Arizona, USA (1947)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

The Peter Paul Fortress, Leningrad, USSR (1963)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners


Irkutsk, Siberia, USSR (1972)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
Island of Siphnos, Greece (1961)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners


 Rome, Italy (1959)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Mexico (1964)
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners


Portraits

Leonor Fini
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Colette and her housekeeper
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Ezra Pound
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Arthur Miller
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Robert Oppenheimer
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Pierre Jean Jouve
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Francois Mauriac
by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Alfred Steiglitz
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Truman Capote
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Carl Jung
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

John Huston
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Francis Bacon
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

Georges Braque
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners



The Decisive Moment: The book and the style

Cartier-Bresson's photography occupies a special place in the pantheon of major world photographers. Like Ansel Adams, his name & work is widely known outside the confines of photography. His work is also widely reproduced and as a consequence his images have entered into the consciousness & memory of large numbers of photographers (and would be photographers) around the world.
His work is also often seen as a 'style'. A way of composing photographs by combining disparate elements within the confines of the viewfinder and freezing them.

And this is unfortunate. Looking at his images as a large body of work, it's clear that the much celebrated decisive moment he is credited with creating (as if the invention of fast shutter speeds had never been used by anyone before him) is a by-product of a more self-conscious over arching vision.

Looking at his very first major book (images below are scanned directly from a copy)  it's clear that his way of photographing the world includes an ability to sense how movement can be included as a visual element within the picture frame. But that's not all they are.
Looking at his photographs of prostitutes and other street people (among others.) Looking at what and not just how he photographs, his work becomes richer.
And less about style (although he clearly had very specific tastes) and more about a man using the camera like a sketchbook. Using fluid, looose lines. Juxtaposing blurry and sharp. Using sharp deep focus and also flat space. Using lots of contrasting ways of shaping & capturing what he saw. Not always capturing fast events. And not always balancing lots of different elements, the more distinctive elements of his celebrated Decisive Moment.

His portraits (shown above) give a sense of this other Cartier-Bresson. The one who looked at the world around him and saw things. Perceiving and also artfully shaping. Not just a man with a fast trigger finger.

In fact, other photographers have had faster fingers and had the unique knack of seeing how things could appear in rapid movement. Garry Winogrand & Martin Parr come to mind. But one wonders whether they would have had quite the same confidence about working & seeing so quickly, without the example of Cartier-Bresson showing them first, that beauty, art & revelation could be minted at quite so rapid a pace.

p.s. For anyone who hasn't seen the original edition of The Decisive Moment, it's quite a shock to see just how large this book really is. Larger than A3. Almost poster sized. So the images have real impact.

It's also important to note that the images below are just a small sample of the work shown in the pages of The Decisive Moment. Published in 1952 it was a summary of work taken in a variety of countries. Of a lot of different situations & events & landscapes.

For anyone reading this who thinks of Cartier-Bresson as a kind of hallowed, genuis, a photographic 'god' if you will, don't. While he was a very talented & hard working photographer. He wasn't infallible. He wasn't also, strictly speaking a self-directed art photographer, however artless or artful his images now appear.
He very often had deadlines to work to, so this to some extent shaped the confines in which his images were produced.

To my mind, it's the quality of his concentration. His ability to define/mine,with extraordinary clarity, a completely different (but uniquely photographic) conception and understanding of the world around him, using simple tools, that marks his greatest achievement as a photographer. Not just his celebrated speed. It's a skill that, even in the digital age we're now in, is quite rare.


Captions below are written exactly as they appear in the Decisive Moment

page 1
Joinville le Pont 1938
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

page 8
(Sienne, Italie) 1933
by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

  pages 9-10
top-Salerne (Italie) 1933
bottom- Place della Signoria. Florence 1933
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

pages 12-13
Valence (Espagne) 1933
Seville (Espagne) 1933
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

pages 14-15
Madrid 1933
Arsila (Maroc espagnol) 1933
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

pages 18-19
Arenes de Valence (Espagne) 1933
Castille 1933
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners


pages 20-21
Andalousie 1933
Isthme de Tehuantepec, Mexico 1934
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners
page 26
Place de l'Europe, Paris 1932
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners


page 28
Mexico, 1934
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

page 35
New York 1946
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

page 36
Taos, New Mexico 1947
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

page 50
Iowa, Middle West 1945
copyrightby Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

page 85
Baroda, Indes 1948
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners

page 125
Egypte, 1950
copyright by Henri-Cartier-Bresson / respective copyright owners



More articles in this series on 55 photographers can be seen here 
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