Celebrating Cartier-Bresson

by Jim Cornfield

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Peking, China, 1948

January 14, 2013

The recent release of writer and journalist Pierre Assouline’s ambitious new book, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography, uncovers fascinating lore surrounding modern photojournalism’s putative founder. In the book’s opening paragraphs, Assouline recalls his first meeting with Cartier-Bresson at his Paris studio in 1994. As Cartier-Bresson excused himself to make tea, Assouline looked around the workplace and found that among a casual assortment of mostly unframed art, only two were photographs, and neither was Cartier-Bresson’s own work. One was a 1929 image by action photographer Henry Munkacsi, showing three exuberant African boys as they dashed into breaking waves on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Assouline did not know it then, but the photograph played a pivotal role in Cartier-Bresson’s life and career. As Assouline reveals later, Cartier-Bresson cited the photograph as the source of a creative epiphany. “On first seeing it,” Cartier-Bresson told Assouline, “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment…I said to myself, ‘Good Lord, one can do that with a camera…’ I felt it like a kick up the backside: Go on, have a go!”


Salerno, Italy, 1933

Precise Organization of Forms

He did indeed “have a go.” Munkacsi’s image helped transform an earnest but frustrated French painter into the artist and documentarian that was Henri Cartier-Bresson. Others provided more tangible influences. Assouline attributes HCB’s signature passion for finding thought-provoking arrangements of people and objects to Cubist painter and celebrated teacher André Lhote.
“Cartier-Bresson’s personal gospel,” Assouline writes, “might have begun with the words, ‘In the beginning was geometry.’ ” While that may be true, it overlooks his real métier: his ability to manipulate that geometry with lightning speed. Cartier-Bresson seemed to be capable of detecting the significance of a moment, however prosaic in outward appearance, then reducing it to what he himself called simply, a “precise organization of forms.” This is the process that always lurks within a Cartier-Bresson image. And there are hundreds of them, each in its way an embodiment of every serious photographer’s quarry—the “decisive moment.” 

Among HCB’s roster of contemporaneous influences, Lhote and Munkacsi among them, and the fellow photographers he knew and worked beside—Walker Evans, Robert Capa, David Seymour—a place of honor will always go to German engineer Oskar Barnack. The revolutionary Leica was Barnack’s brainchild: the first serious, precision-engineered lightweight “miniature” camera, designed for 35mm roll film and handheld operation, even under low-light conditions. Cartier-Bresson bought one in Marseille in 1932, and on that day, Assouline writes, “he became a photographer…the artist had found his instrument.” 

Even with the limitation of a fixed 50mm lens, and the unwieldy proportions of its 1 x 1.5 inch-per-frame format, the Leica could not have been a better fit for HCB’s taut work style. The normal focal length, subtending the viewing angle of the human eye, produced a truthful, undistorted image, and the elongated frame, according to Assouline was, in Cartier-Bresson’s eyes, “the only natural way to reconcile the verticality of man and the horizontality of the world.” 

Painter Henri Matisse, Vence, France, 1944

A Succession of Great Stories

While the 35mm format quickly became the standard of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson’s imagery became the gold standard. He stalked and captured candid moments in the life of the world, first in the tortured cities of 1930s and 1940s Europe—from Berlin and Paris to Warsaw, London, Rome and Madrid— and then ranging across the post-war world to Russia, China, India and the U.S. He often played against his own distinctive archetype, abandoning the persona of the predatory bob-and-weave street photographer to do intimate handheld environmental portraits of the famous and not-so-famous. He ventured several times into motion pictures, saw his images displayed in countless galleries and published in over three dozen book-length collections. He even proved his bureaucratic and diplomatic skills as the co-founder of the Magnum Photo Agency, which remains home base to photojournalism’s unchallenged A-list of shooters. 

Assouline, a skilled biographer with an eye for quirky detail and storytelling, has done exhaustive research on Cartier-Bresson’s extraordinary life—which ended in Montjustin, France, in 2004.

The Cartier-Bresson’s saga is nothing if not a succession of great short stories—not every one photographic, but all revealing the toughness that formed his work style and sensibilities. There were his adventures on Africa’s Ivory Coast, where he hunted game and nearly died of blackwater fever; his three years in a German P.O.W. camp (burying his beloved Leica on a farm in Vosges before he was captured) and the harrowing escape and subsequent work with the French underground; his anti-fascist film work in France with Jean Renoir and civil war-torn Spain with Herbert Kline. One of many stirring anecdotes from his active photographic years has Cartier-Bresson in the company of the beleaguered Mahatma Gandhi, shooting coverage for the French media in the turbulent aftermath of India’s break from the British Empire. During his shooting session, he concentrated only on Gandhi’s expressive hands. Afterward, the leader of India glanced curiously through a MOMA catalogue in Cartier-Bresson’s camera bag, drawn to an image of Paul Caudel, a right-wing French poet who was preoccupied by the last days of mankind. “Death, death, death,” Gandhi murmured, shaking his head and reflecting on the image’s dark subject. An hour later, he himself was dead from an assassin’s bullet. HCB’s close-ups of those lean, weathered hands were the last portraits of Gandhi.

An Ideal Companion

Surprisingly, none of HCB’s photographic work is represented in Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography. There’s a smattering of snapshots, mostly of Cartier-Bresson at his leisure with friends and family. But this book makes no attempt to be the familiar “photobiography” that intertwines someone’s entire canon of images with a life story. To combine Assouline’s  intricate narrative with Cartier-Bresson’s staggering picture collection, and do both justice would require an impractically huge volume. Fortunately, in 2003, Thames & Hudson debuted a lavish HCB collection titled Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World which serves as an ideal companion to Assouline’s book. 

Available in soft cover since 2006, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World is a monumental retrospective of HCB’s lifetime of imagery—hundreds of beautifully reproduced photographs originally published to honor Cartier-Bresson’s 95th birthday. There are the classic HCB images that have become iconic examples of photojournalism at its most passionate and creative. And there are scores of lesser known images, some previously unpublished, that only add to the collective wonderment that  Cartier-Bresson’s eloquent vision of the world will always inspire. This is a truly indispensable addition to every photographer’s library. 

Jim Cornfield (www.jimcornfield.net) is Rangefinder’s resident book reviewer and a regular contributor. 

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