Born in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, Henri Cartier-Bresson developed a strong fascination with painting early on, and particularly with Surrealism. In 1932, after spending a year in the Ivory Coast, he discovered the Leica - his camera of choice thereafter - and began a life-long passion for photography. In 1933 he had his first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. He later made films with Jean Renoir. Taken prisoner of war in 1940, he escaped on his third attempt in 1943 and subsequently joined an underground organization to assist prisoners and escapees. In 1945 he photographed the liberation of Paris with a group of professional journalists and then filmed the documentary Le Retour (The Return). In 1947, with Robert Capa, George Rodger, David 'Chim' Seymour and William Vandivert, he founded Magnum Photos. After three years spent travelling in the East, in 1952 he returned to Europe, where he published his first book, Images à la Sauvette (published in English as The Decisive Moment). He explained his approach to photography in these terms, '"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. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression." From 1968 he began to curtail his photographic activities, preferring to concentrate on drawing and painting. In 2003, with his wife and daughter, he created the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris for the preservation of his work. Cartier-Bresson received an extraordinary number of prizes, awards and honorary doctorates. He died at his home in Provence on 3 August 2004, a few weeks short of his 96th birthday.
Source: Magnum Photos
Cartier-Bresson almost exclusively used Leica 35 mm rangefinder cameras equipped with normal 50 mm lenses or occasionally a wide-angle for landscapes. He often wrapped black tape around the camera's chrome body to make it less conspicuous. With fast black and white films and sharp lenses, he was able to photograph almost by stealth to capture the events. No longer bound by a huge 4×5 press camera or an awkward medium format twin-lens reflex camera, miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called "the velvet hand [and] the hawk's eye." He never photographed with flash, a practice he saw as "[i]mpolite...like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand." He believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder, not in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Indeed, he emphasized that his prints were not cropped by insisting they include the first millimetre or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area resulting, after printing, in a black border around the positive image.
Cartier-Bresson worked exclusively in black and white, other than a few unsuccessful attempts in color. He disliked developing or making his own prints and showed a considerable lack of interest in the process of photography in general, likening photography with the small camera to an "instant drawing". Technical aspects of photography were valid for him only where they allowed him to express what he saw: "Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see... The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing."
He started a tradition of testing new camera lenses by taking photographs of ducks in urban parks. He never published the images but referred to them as 'my only superstition' as he considered it a 'baptism' of the lens. Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the art world's most unassuming personalities. He disliked publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Although he took many famous portraits, his own face was little known to the world at large (which presumably had the advantage of allowing him to work on the street in peace). He dismissed others' applications of the term "art" to his photographs, which he thought were merely his gut reactions to moments in time that he had happened upon. "In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotiv."