“Life is once, forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Shaping Modern Photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson shaped modern photography with his lively, candid black-and-white pictures, which embraced documentarian intimacy and poetic dynamism. His concept of the “decisive moment,” in which photographers must snap their shutters at the exact right time to achieve the ideal shot, was particularly influential in photojournalism and street photography.

International Acclaim

Cartier-Bresson studied literature for a year at the University of Cambridge and experimented with photography on trips to Europe, the Ivory Coast, and Mexico. After World War II, Cartier-Bresson was one of the three founding members of what would become Europe’s most famous press agencies, Magnum Photos, alongside fellow photography icons Robert Capa, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour. He has exhibited virtually all around the world, including London, New York, Paris, Mexico City, Zürich, and Tokyo. His work as a legendary photographer belongs in the most distinguished collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Cartier-Bresson is rightly considered one of the masters of 20th-century photography.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work embraced art, politics, revolution, and war. But more powerful than any of these overarching themes was his evident concern for the human individual at every social level. Cartier-Bresson’s observations of the effects of poverty and revolution around the world led directly to his pioneering photojournalism and his co-founding of Magnum Photos. He also became renowned for his penetrating portraits of the most prominent figures of his time: Cartier-Bresson’s biographer PierreAssouline called him “the eye of the century.” – Clement Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Here and Now. 2013

The Early Years

Bresson was born in 1908 in the Chanteloup commune in France. He was born into a wealthy and influential French family who owned one of the most prominent thread and cotton factories, enjoying a privileged upbringing. Exposed to the unique bohemian culture of early 20th century Paris at an early age, Cartier-Bresson developed a fondness for literature and the arts. In his adolescent years, Cartier-Bresson pushed against the formal traditions of his affluent family, who, as the oldest of five children, expected him to fill the succession of the family business. Showing much more regard to the discipline of painting than studying business, Cartier Bresson’s family relented, and he began studying painting. Soon after, he enrolled in the academy of the Cubist painter André Lhote. Under Lhote, Cartier-Bresson would learn the fundamental components of form and composition that he would eventually use in photography. Lhote’s academic structure proved too rigid, but he still noted Lhote’s teaching as “photography without a camera.” In the 1920s, he attended regular meetings at Parisian cafés and turned to the free-thinking movement of the Surrealists.

The Lost Generation

In 1929, Henri Cartier-Bresson was drafted into the French Air Force. During this time, he met the emblematic characters of the Lost Generation, Harry and Caress Crosby, who created the Black Sun Press. Along with other avant-garde artists like Salvador Dalí, Andre Breton, and the American couple Gretchen and Peter Powel, this circle inspired Cartier-Bresson to use photography as a serious medium for his art practice. In his earliest photographs, he was influenced by the most famous photographer in Paris, Eugene Atget, who had masterfully captured the disappearing old Paris under Haussmann’s modernization plans. From the 1930s onward, Cartier-Bresson would begin to travel far and wide, creating at each stop the unique aesthetic that formulated his conception of the “decisive moment.”

“For me, the camera is a sketch-book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to give a meaning to the world, one must feel involved in what one singles out through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, sensitivity, a discipline of mind, and a sense of geometry. It’s through economy of means and above all forgetting one-self that one arrives at simplicity of expression. 

To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy. For me, photography is to place head, heart, and eye along the same line of sight – it’s a way of life.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Three Juveniles, Montreal, Canada, 1965

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Three Juveniles, Montreal, Canada
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Three Juveniles, Montreal, Canada, 1965, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Perhaps reminiscent of his first photographs taken in the 1920s, during his time as a young boy in the newly established Boy Scout movement, Cartier-Bresson captures three boys posing for the camera with a flare of comedy and lightheartedness. Ahead of a background of wall graffiti that includes initials within heart shapes and a succession of names written one above another, the image presents a glimpse of an urban environment inhabited by the young boys.

The Playful Nature of Youth Against the Grittiness of the City

The picture offers the contrast between the playful nature of youth against the grittiness of the city. An example of this is in the right side of the foreground, where a parked or maybe passing car contains a small animal toy hanging from its rearview mirror. Within the confines of the vehicle, the toy reflects the jubilant energy of the boys posing for the image, who smile and pose at the camera, they themselves confined to the realism of living in the city. One of the boys offers a smile and a head turn, perhaps to capture his best side. Another stretches his arms out, stopped and playfully frozen, but suspended at the moment for posterity. The boy nearest the wall seems to smile in gleeful acknowledgment of the comedic scene, as all three become participants to the humor within that decisive moment by Cartier-Bresson. If life is played out as a drama, these three boys are prime actors.

Elevating the Ordinary

In this image, Cartier-Bresson demonstrates his unique skill as a captivating photographer. He elevates an ordinary instant of boys walking in the city by capturing the human connection between the subject and the viewer, using humor and composition to create a poetic image capable of charming the viewer. In fact, his lifestyle as a pioneering photojournalist provided him with the experiences necessary to bond himself to a continuous thread of human connection and empathy. If the picture were not an act of spontaneity, it would lack all of its vibrancy and inertia. Cartier-Bresson used his unbridled artistic imagination to portray not just the hardship of the world, but its opposite, the simplicity to live free and find small miracles within everyday life.

“I always have my camera. Except for shaving in the morning.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson.