Why Henri Cartier-Bresson Remains One of Photography’s Most Important Figures

Jacqui Palumbo
Jun 18, 2020 8:29PM

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson stands by with his camera during the 1968 Paris riots. Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images.

Henri Cartier-Bresson viewed a powerful still image as the hairsbreadth of an instant. To his mind, a photographer had a fleeting moment when all the moving parts aligned, revealing something honest and true about the world—the photographer just had to know exactly when to fire the shutter. A strong composition wasn’t merely a product of serendipity, though: Cartier-Bresson often chose a setting and waited for the right elements to take shape in front of his lens.

Cartier-Bresson called the split second of action “the decisive moment” and titled his famed 1952 photo book with that phrase. His approach has become ubiquitous in the field of photography, and Cartier-Bresson remains one of its most famous figures. Yet he came to photography by chance, initially training as a painter under Cubist artist André Lhote.

In the early 1930s, Cartier-Bresson encountered Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika (1929) by Martin Munkácsi: an image of three young children, nearly silhouetted, running into the crashing waves. “It is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to the fireworks and made me suddenly realize that photography could reach eternity through the moment,” he once recalled.

In subsequent decades, Cartier-Bresson became a war documentary filmmaker, an accomplished photographer for magazines including Life, and a co-founder of the influential picture agency Magnum Photos. Toward the end of his career, Cartier-Bressor cut ties with Magnum to return to drawing and painting. “Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation,” he once described of his dual practices.

Here are five things to know about the famed French photographer.

He shot “decisive moments” two decades before popularizing the phrase

In Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932)—named by Time as one of the 100 images that changed the world—a man leaps across a puddle of water. Behind him, a poster of a dancer echoes and reverses his movement. To get the shot, Cartier-Bresson aimed his signature Leica 35mm camera through a fence behind a train station, waiting for the scene to come together.

This is the image that became emblematic of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” yet it was shot 20 years before he wrote the phrase in the titular photo book. The Decisive Moment—which was called Images à la Sauvette, or “Images on the Run,” in France—features chronological photographs of Cartier-Bresson’s extensive travels between 1932 and 1952.

Cartier-Bresson didn’t come up with the idea himself—he took it from the 17th-century memoirist Cardinal de Retz, who once wrote: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment, and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.”

Though Cartier-Bresson’s approach has been called “out of date” in recent years, it remains a benchmark in photography to be measured against or to subvert. Other aesthetic philosophies that intentionally avoid decisive moments have greatly influenced Hilla and Bernd Becher’s serial photography, as well as William Eggleston’s and Stephen Shore’s shots of stillness and the mundane.

He found success after being abandoned in Mexico

In 1932, Cartier-Bresson toured Europe with his small Leica, which gave him the discrete eye he became known for in his street photography. His shots from the trip became his first published photographs and filled his first exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery in New York.

Two years later, the photographer signed on with a French ethnographic mission to Argentina to document the Pan-American Highway’s construction. While in Mexico City, the group’s leader stole away in the middle of the night with all of their funds. The mission disbanded and Cartier-Bresson found himself alone in the city. Instead of returning to Paris, he stayed, drawn to the city’s thriving Surrealist movement. In a café, he met the American poet Langston Hughes, who was translating Mexican poetry for income. Hughes invited Cartier-Bresson to stay in his villa and immerse himself in the city’s artistic circle.

Cartier-Bresson began taking assignments for Mexican press. An essay from Magnum Photos noted that he was wholly out of place, known to locals as “the little white man with the cheeks of a shrimp.” Yet he came into his own here, shooting a body of street photography that would be exhibited at the Palacio de Bellas Artesin 1935 alongside images by Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The buzz around the show reached New York, spurring a second exhibition with Julien Levy Gallery.

He was a prisoner of war

The same year of his exhibition in Mexico, Cartier-Bresson met the photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand and took an interest in the moving image. Over the next few years, he assisted filmmaker Jean Renoir and then began directing his own documentaries, including one about the lives of American soldiers fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Cartier-Bresson’s experience making wartime documentaries led him to join the French army’s film and photo unit in 1940, but he was taken prisoner by the Germans while in the Vosges mountains. He spent 35 months in captivity, attempting to escape twice before finally reaching France on the third try.

When Cartier-Bresson returned home in 1943, he joined a covert organization to help other escaped detainees. Two years later, he photographed an exuberant, liberated Paris and directed a documentary on prisoners of war who made it back to France, titled Le Retour (“The Return”).

“Cartier-Bresson, who had been one of them, took their pictures and followed them home, all the interminable way, to the huge centers of repatriation in the vast deserted railway—sheds, and then finally back to their own farms and foyers,” wrote Lincoln Kirstein in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1947 catalogue The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

He photographed iconic images of artists and writers

In addition to shooting documentary images, Cartier-Bresson was also a portrait photographer who took now-iconic images of his creative contemporaries. In 1944, he was asked by publisher Pierre Braun to photograph famous artists and writers of the era. Though the project was never printed, he took on a similar assignment for Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, spending a year in the United States.

Cartier-Bresson’s subjects included artists Henri Matisse, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Robert Rauschenberg, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Bacon, as well as writers and thinkers including Truman Capote, André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner, and Albert Camus.

Cartier-Bresson became particularly close with Matisse, visiting his villa Le Rêve several times in 1944 when the painter was in poor health following surgery. Years later, when Cartier-Bresson showed him his dummy copy of The Decisive Moment, Matisse offered to design the lyrical cover of the monograph. Three years later, Joan Miró designed the cover for Cartier-Bresson’s The Europeans (1955), a body of work showing the fragile continent knitting itself together in the shadow of World War II.

He witnessed tidal changes in India, Indonesia, and China

After Cartier-Bresson co-founded Magnum Photos in 1947 with Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert (who quickly dropped out), the photographers split up to cover different parts of the world: Capa to Soviet Russia with author John Steinbeck; Seymour around Europe to focus on young refugees; and Rodger to Africa and the Middle East. Cartier-Bresson set his sights eastward to the seismic changes taking place in India, which was newly free of British colonial rule.

There, Cartier-Bresson took the last photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, shortly before the leader’s assassination. His images show the leader of India’s independence movement in the Birla House—where he would be killed—and depict his last public appearance at a shrine, where he was physically supported by his nieces after a period of extended fasting. Editors from Life asked the photographer to stay in Delhi to cover the funeral procession. Cartier-Bresson sent back emotional images of the vast crowds that gathered at the cremation grounds, the hopeful people who lined up along the train tracks to touch Gandhi’s ashes, and the final destination of his remains in the River Ganges.

Gandhi’s death wasn’t the only history-making moment that Cartier-Bresson witnessed during his three-year sojourn in Asia. In addition to photographing Indonesia just after its independence from Dutch rule, he spent 10 months in China during the final year of its civil war, as the nationalist Kuomintang government lost its power and the communist People’s Republic of China began a new era.

In his nomadic life, Cartier-Bresson witnessed a fragile world in a state of flux, emerging from global war and transitions of power. Yet he gave as much import to the everyday people who passed in front of his lens as he did to the leaders who spurred momentous change. All subjects were ephemeral, each with its own decisive moment.

“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing,” he once mused, “and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.