When I first got to discovering the history of photography, one name appeared repeatedly in the many books that I read. That name was Henri Cartier-Bresson. My first thought was, ‘Do I really want to spend my time reading about a Frenchman, what with their quirkiness and snobbishness?’ I decided to take a look anyway, and what a revelation it has been.
The Rich Bourgeois Surrealist Communist Sympathizer and the War Years
Born in the Cartier-Bresson family, known throughout France for their excellent threads, the restless young HCB was inspired by an uncle early in his career in art. He received his early formal art education under the Cubist proponent, André Lhote, though he was never considered particularly good at it. Owing to Lhote’s obsession with geometry and composition, the training he received, however, was to become an integral part of his art that will always affect his photographic vision. In the 1920s he also found himself in the company of Surrealist proponents, the cultural movement closely related to Communism. It was through these connections that he got acquainted with another great photographer, Robert Capa, and the lesser-known, but equally important David “Chim” Seymour. It was around this period that he started dabbling in cinematography after minimal instruction from Paul Strand, and assisting Jean Renoir. Soon after, the war broke out and HCB found himself in the losing French ranks as part of the cinematographic unit, and had to spend 3 years in POW camps. After escaping from the camps, he resumed work capturing scenes in the warzone for the Allied propaganda.
A funny story that arose was how HCB showed up at his own supposed-posthumous exhibition held by MoMA in the summer of 1945, the latter having thought that he had perished in the war. This was not true. In fact, HCB arrived at the planning stage and was able to get involved in the preparations.
Post-War – Rise to Fame and the Founding of Magnum Photos
The post-war years were marked by tumultuous events in the world stage. A weakening British Empire struggled to hang on to its colonies, which eventually became the Commonwealth of today. In those days, however, the wealth was anything but common, and the colonies resented that. Chief among these was India, one of the most important colonies of the Empire, which served as a base for the operations in the Far East (think regional headquarters). Among those agitating for change is Gandhi, one of the most recognizable politicians in the world. In 1947, HCB arrived in India and took several pictures of the iconic leader, who was assassinated not fifteen minutes after the assignment. At the funeral, HCB’s approach was considered by some to be superior to the brashness of Margaret Bourke-White, a world-famous photographer (and founding staff member of LIFE magazine) who had her equipment confiscated by the Mahatma’s devotees for her perceived (and probably actual) disrespect.
Towards the end of the 40’s, China was also undergoing fundamental changes in her society. HCB was able to arrive in China in the late stages of the civil war, as the nationalist Kuomintang was chased out of the country by a Communist movement that was gaining momentum. He was also able to record the plight of the victims of the previous political transition, namely the eunuchs of Imperial China, thus gaining him fame as one of the elite photographers.
Amidst all the travelling and photographing, HCB found time to found (pun unintended) Magnum photos with Capa, Chim and George Rodger (albeit in absentia). Part of the reason for the agency’s founding was as a counterbalance to the hegemony exercised by magazine editors, who demanded specific photo lists from photojournalists on their staff. This was of particular interest to HCB, who fancied himself a bit of an artist, resented the tyranny of the system (to be fair, the editors felt the same about him), and saw the agency as a way to regain some of his cherished freedom.
The Decisive Moment
In 1952, HCB published images a la sauvette, translated The Decisive Moment, the work that will come to be synonymous with his approach to picture-making. He was so proud of it that he brought it to Henri Matisse, the great French artist, who drew the image on the cover of the book. In it, HCB laid out his philosophy, of how all the elements in the world move around constantly, and yet, in that one pregnant moment, everything in a scene falls into place and is perfect. In his words, “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” The job of a photographer is therefore to ensure that he is sensitive to the interplay of elements, timing and events, and to be there to capture that unique fleeting moment in time.
Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.
Despite his commitment to this ideal, late in his life, HCB came to resent the term, finding it somewhat trite. Perhaps it is because the idea was so often repeated, and so seldom understood in its entirety. Many photographers proceeded to quote the term without reading his whole treatise (I, too, am guilty, but not for lack of trying. I simply can’t find his original work.) Without a doubt, some of them would have abused the term, robbing it of its meaning. Nonetheless, the idea lives on, if not in its entirety, then at least in part.
Later Career and Retirement from Photography
HCB will go on to photograph many memorable photo essays, including Communist Cuba and Soviet Union (perhaps rekindling his leftist inclinations), and Japan, where he took an especially powerful image of mourners at a funeral. Perhaps in response to the abuse of one of his USSR images, wherein an image of a party was deliberately cropped and printed in L’Express out of context, he began inserting black keylines around his frames to discourage cropping of his images. He also stamped many of his photographs with a “do not crop” sign; some later variations of the stamp besought the reproduction of any of his photographs “only by full respect of the letter of spirit of its caption”.
As his fame continued to grow, HCB became increasingly seen as an establishment figure – one to be opposed and rebelled against by an angsty generation of French artists. Jealousy of his fame no doubt played a part in his gradual alienation the the art circles as well. In addition, his whole modus operandi, based largely on the ability to be as unobtrusive as possible, became severely hampered by his recognizability. Nonetheless he continued photographing, embarking on a photo essay of the idyllic French countryside, perhaps in part to get away from the knowing crowd who got in his way. Unfortunately, the poor production and lukewarm reception of the resulting book drove another nail in the coffin of his photographic career. The last straw can be traced to the increasingly commercial nature of Magnum, the agency he helped found. Frustrated with the abandonment of the agency’s founding ideals, HCB effectively quit Magnum and photojournalism altogether.
Little is known about HCB’s life after photography, though the documentary, The Impassioned Eye offers a rare glimpse into his private world. The days after his retirement seemed to be his happiest. He continued to take pictures, but only in private and of family and friends. He was also spending much of his time sketching, and though amateurish, one can tell how proud he was of the sketches in the documentary. As for his income, he continued to sell prints, made by an assistant for he dislikes printing. He likes to say that the process of image making ends with the shutter release. Nonetheless, he maintains obsessive control over how an image should look in the final print.
In the interviews HCB gave in the latter part of his life, as well as in his published writings, he outlines his photographic philosophy. He states that to him, photography is nothing but instant sketching. He also espoused the virtue of taking a shot only at the decisive moment. Indeed, he is perhaps the biggest reason why this “sniper” philosophy exists. However, looking at some of his contact sheets (which he often refuses to show anyone), one has to wonder if there isn’t a little embellishment and revisionism here. Nonetheless, given his contribution to the art I think we can afford to indulge him in this much.
Each generation of photographers is shaped by the world events of their day; HCB and his generation reciprocated by shaping the world events in their own way. Some might say that the golden age of photojournalism existed because of the wars and social upheavals. That may be partially true, but without the genius and conviction of men such as HCB, photojournalism would never have been able to cause the ripples in time that it did. And so, let us celebrate, however belatedly, the genius of the man called the father of modern photojournalism.