From Coco Chanel to Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moments” Expose Icons

As John Morris, former executive editor at Magnum Photos, which Cartier-Bresson co-founded, once put it: Cartier-Bresson “has great human perception” and “knows what moments are significant in terms of the human being.” Capturing historic and mundane events alike, Cartier-Bresson shot important cultural figures in moments of repose, as well as students and laymen in action—notably, the 1968 student protests in France.

In his iconic photograph Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (1932) a certain synchronicity of form and balance of composition crystallize, and the photograph clearly articulates Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson’s sensitivity to light and form was unparalleled, and he proved that brilliantly organized, precisely rendered photographs could make time stand still. The arc of a man´s leg as he leaps across a shallow body of water echoes certain structural appendages of a wrought iron gate and sloping rooftops in the background. Employing what Martine Franck, his wife and a fellow photographer, described as an “intimate intuition,” Cartier-Bresson excelled at framing truncated scenes as elegant reflections of the human condition. A jaunt across the street seems balletic, and a simple portrait takes on a poetic quality. 

In “A Decisive Collection” at Beetles + Huxley in London, a collection of Cartier-Bresson’s prints is being exhibited in collaboration with Leica. Vintage camera models comparable to the ones the photographer used are displayed alongside his prints. Among the works on view are photographs Cartier-Bresson made of his friends, capturing some of the most important intellectual and creative minds of the 20th century. Figures like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Carl Jung, Francis Bacon, Saul Steinberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Coco Chanel sat before his camera—all cast in a dramatic, chiaroscuric light.

As Cartier-Bresson once explained, “For me the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity…” This quote takes on a sort of epic, foreshadowing quality in light of the fact that the artist largely abandoned photography for painting and drawing later in his life. Lucky for his viewers, exhibitions like this one serve to memorialize Cartier-Bresson’s long look through the eye of the camera.

Anna Furman

Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Decisive Collection” is on view at Beetles + Huxley, London, Feb. 25–Mar. 26, 2015.

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