By Rida Ahmed
Henri Cartier-Bresson, known, quite fittingly, as the “eye of the century,” was a photography genius. Throughout his career he captured moments big and small, people who were iconic and famous as well as people who were perfectly ordinary. His mastery lay in his ability to elevate observations of everyday life to aesthetic magnificence. His focus on capturing the perfect moment laid the foundation of modern photojournalism, a field he is credited with creating. Photography, he said, “is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.”
Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup, France, on August 22, 1908, the oldest of five children. He developed an appreciation for and an interest in art from an early age – his uncle was a noted printer and his great-grandfather had been an artist – and in 1927 he began studying painting with André Lhote, a well-known cubist. A one year stint in the Ivory Coast introduced Cartier-Bresson to photography. Later that year he returned to France and purchased a 35mm Leica, his tool of choice for the rest of his career. Like his camera, Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photography remained unchanged – he had a particular disdain for coloured photography and images that had been altered by artificial light or cropping. He became consumed with photography and two years later displayed his work in his first ever exhibit at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. In the next couple of years Cartier-Bresson dabbled in filmmaking as French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s assistant, including the critically acclaimed La Règle Du Jeu.
As world events took a dramatic turn, so did Cartier-Bresson’s life; in 1940 he was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans after they invaded France. Following two failed attempts, he successfully escaped in February 1943 and began working for MNPGD, a secret organization that helped prisoners and escapees. In the years that followed, Cartier-Bresson returned to photography and travelled to Asia, Europe and South America, capturing moments that would go down in history as well as the extraordinary moments of ordinary life. The artist’s extensive travel – he visited five continents and countless cities and towns - is exhibited in the geographical and cultural vastness of his work.
With the help of his wife Martine Franck and daughter Mélanie, he set up the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in 2003, which served as a permanent home for his collected works and as an exhibition space for other artists. The legendary photographer passed away in Provence on August 3rd, 2004, a few weeks before his 96th birthday.
Throughout his career, whether he was capturing a monumental moment or one of sweet simplicity, Cartier-Bresson approached both with the same combination of attentiveness, patience and speed, and gave each equal gravitas. He once said, "the smallest thing can be a great subject and the little human detail can become a leitmotif." He captured portraits of icons such as Matisse, T. S. Elliot, Che Guevara and Coco Chanel and with his camera recorded huge events such as the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese revolution and the life and death of Mahatma Gandhi. However, the bulk of his work was focused on the everyday. An instance so simple and small so as to be deemed insignificant, but one which Cartier-Bresson elevated to aesthetic and artistic mastery; a child running past a puddle, a fisherman throwing his net into the water and a young couple going in for a kiss. He was once quoted describing the process of capturing that perfectly ordinary moment: “When you take a shot, you're halfway between a pickpocket and a tightrope walker. It's a perpetual game underscored by incredible nervous tension."
Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photography forms the basis of the work done by many talented photographers at PWB; ascribing meaning to an otherwise regular moment in someone’s life. Of photography, he said: “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 has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”
For more information about Henri Cartier-Bresson, his work and his foundation, visit his website.