Master of Moments: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The decisive moment. If you have studied photography even in the slightest bit, you will likely have heard that saying. Just about every hobbyist and professional knows that you always need to be on the lookout for the precise second when you know you should press the shutter. It has become a philosophy, particularly of street photographers; an idiom to live by. What’s ironic is the man to whom that saying is credited to didn’t actually like it. The phrase, “The Decisive Moment”, came from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, Images à la Sauvette, which, when published in America was renamed. The actual translation means “Pictures on the Run”. Cartier-Bresson, while known for his spontaneous shooting style, didn’t particularly care for the saying because he thought it was used to pigeonhole him. He just did what he did, and although he would agree that there is a certain decisive moment, he did not want that to define who he was. He said, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson was born in France in 1908. Although he had a camera from a young age and enjoyed photography, he ended up studying painting and literature at the University of Cambridge, with the goal of becoming an artist. That all changed when he came across a photo by Martin Munkacsi called Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika. He called this photograph “perfection” saying, “The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkacsi. When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in a wave, I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said, ‘Damn it’, I took my camera and went out into the street.” In that instant painting was no longer his career of choice. He decided to take up photography, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” From the very beginning he disguised his camera with black paint to cover all of the shiny metallic parts. This helped him to be able to hide in a crowd and capture the world in natural, uninhibited moments. He liked taking photographs that happen when the photographer is unnoticed. He found that when people see someone with a camera, their expression changes, the moment is gone. He wanted an unaltered view of the world, a place that existed exactly as he saw it. He wanted to capture things just as they were for that split second.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson

Close friends would say he was always attentive, always looking. He had the ability to be in the conversation and yet always knowing what was happening around him, not wanting to miss a thing. He was known for living completely in the moment. He never looked back at the past and rarely towards the future. He had an insatiable curiosity for people and said that photography was not really something that could be taught, “teaching how to use your little finger, that is all.” He said you just have to be sensitive, not to really want it. “Don’t think too much because the brain is a bit dangerous,” he said, “you need to be receptive.” What was important to him was the geometry of the image, how everything came together in the composition. Every frame was exactly as he wanted it to be. He didn’t believe in cropping or in any type of manipulation. He would even stamp his images “do not crop” on the back, to prevent editors from taking any sort of artistic license with them.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson

After this life-changing discovery, he soon began to take pictures all over the world: Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Spain, Mexico and also began to get exhibitions. It was during this time, the 1930’s, when he met Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour, who became his dear friends and mentors. But, just as he was beginning his career and starting to make a name for himself in the world of photography, the war began. He enlisted as a Corporal, and was shortly captured by German soldiers. He was held for 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labor. After two failed attempts at escape, he was finally successful the third time, hiding on a farm until getting false papers allowed him to travel throughout France. During the rest of the war, he worked for the underground helping other prisoners who had escaped, as well as working with other photographers, covering the Occupation and eventual liberation of France.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson

When the war was over he kept shooting, making a name for himself in photojournalism, and in 1947, he, Robert Capa, and David Seymour founded Magnum Photos. He called Magnum “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.” His curiosity of people and of life everywhere led him to spend his time traveling the world covering events like Gandhi’s funeral in India and the end of the Chinese Civil War. And, although he focused a lot of his time on personal work with anonymous subjects, he also photographed well-known people as well, such as Matisse, Picasso, Faulkner, and Malcolm X. Cartier-Bresson’s wife, photographer Martine Franck, said her husband seemed to have an innate intuition of what was happening in the world and what was important. He was always there. I think the proof of that is in one of his most famous photographs, Behind the Gare St. Lazare. He says he put the camera up between planks of a fence and only the lens could peak through. He didn’t see the man leaping; it was “all luck” according to Cartier-Bresson. It wasn’t luck though; it was a gift. He had an inherent ability to know when to press the shutter. He knew instinctively which precise moments were significant.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson

In 1975, after shooting for forty-five years, Cartier-Bresson put down his camera. He never discussed the decision; he just did it. He went full circle and spent the remaining years of his life back at his first love, drawing and painting. In 2003, at the age of 94, he said in an interview with NPR’s Susan Stomberg, “I never think about photography. It doesn’t interest me.” I don’t think he meant to lessen what he had done with his life, but he was so fully into living in the present that the past didn’t interest him and that part of his life was done. I think that’s what he loved the most about photography, the ability to capture a single moment in time and preserve it forever and then be able to move on. “To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality,” he said, “It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson Henri Cartier-Bresson