Henri Cartier-Bresson

(1908—2004) French photographer and film director

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French photographer and film director who was one of the key figures in the development of the photograph as a documentary record.

The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, Cartier-Bresson studied in Paris (1927–28) with the cubist painter and critic André Lhote (1885–1962). This instilled in Cartier-Bresson a love of painting and an eye for the surreal, both of which were to influence his later work. After studying literature in Cambridge (1929) and completing his military service, he went to Africa but contracted blackwater fever and returned to Marseilles to convalesce. He now began to exploit his interest in photography, selling his pictures to magazines and agencies, and in 1933 the first exhibitions of his work were staged in Madrid and New York. Cartier-Bresson travelled widely, recording the lives of ordinary people with an instinct for the ‘decisive moment’ of a scene or event; a famous example is his picture of a French family picnicking on the banks of the Marne, taken in 1935. Characteristically, when covering the coronation of George VI in London, Cartier-Bresson chose to record the reactions of spectators rather than the events themselves, introducing an entirely fresh perspective.

In 1936 Cartier-Bresson began his association with the French film director Jean Renoir, assisting in the production of Une Partie de campagne (1936) and La Règle du jeu (1939). This prompted Cartier-Bresson to direct his own documentary film about the Spanish civil war, Return to Life (1937).

During World War II, Cartier-Bresson served in the French army, was captured, and spent nearly three years in a POW camp before escaping. He joined the Resistance in Paris to make a photographic record of the German occupation and the retreat following the Allied invasion. His film Le Retour (1945) dealt with the fate of returning French POWs. In 1947, together with the photographer Robert Capa and others, Cartier-Bresson founded the cooperative photographic agency, Magnum Photos, and later served as its president (1956–66). His collections of photographs include The Decisive Moment (1952), Europeans (1955), People of Moscow (1955), Cartier-Bresson's France (1971), Portraits 1932–1983 (1983), Henri Cartier-Bresson in India (1988), and America in Passing (1991). In 1989 he published Traits pour Traits (Line by Line), a book of drawings.

Subjects: Photography and Photographs — Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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