The early part of the 20th century was a time of firsts and births in photography. Names like Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and others stand out among the crowd as being the men who brought photography out of obscurity and cemented it as a modern artform. However, these giants were not alone. Other men were working to revolutionize the way that the public considered photography as well as exploring the boundaries of this new artistic medium. Among those men was Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of candid photography — a French photographer who got his start as a surrealist painter.
Cartier-Bresson began and ended his artistic life as a painter. Introduced to oil painting by his Uncle Louis at a young age, he went to Lhote Academy at the age of 20. Lhote Academy was the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. While at the Academy, Cartier-Bresson also studied with the portrait-maker Jacques Émile Blanche. Lhote and Blanche’s aspirations to instill their student with both the classical and the more modern methods of painting gave Cartier-Bresson a profound appreciation for art. He went on to consider Lhote his “photography teacher without a camera.” Even as Lhote’s rule-heavy methods made Cartier-Bresson grow more and more restless, those very same methods would later influence and inform his own photography.
In the 1920s, as surrealism was springing up throughout Europe, Cartier-Bresson fell in with the crowd and matured artistically in this stormy climate. However, he was unable to realize his ambition of expressing the concepts and theories that under-girded Surrealism in his painting. In the late 1920s, Cartier-Bresson was forced to complete a two-year term of service in the French Army and then entered into a love affair with Caresse Crosby. After the affair ended, he traveled to the Ivory Coast in Africa and lived as a hunter until 1931 when, after suffering from blackwater fever, he returned to France and renewed his acquaintance with the Surrealist movement.
Cartier-Bresson decided to devote his efforts to photography after seeing a photo by Martin Munkacsi. The photo Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika captured the essence of life of the subjects so completely that Cartier-Bresson decided to take his camera out and see if he could do the same. “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant,” were his thoughts after seeing Munkasci’s photo. Cartier-Bresson took his 50mm Leica and began capturing life as it happened in the crowded streets of Marseilles. He chose to keep his cameras small and unobtrusive, using mostly 35mm cameras and even going so far as to paint the shiny parts of his Leica black, so that he could remain anonymous and avoid the stilted formality that came up whenever people knew they were being photographed. He disdained the use of flash as well. Instead, he hid in the crowd, using it as a way to maintain his anonymity while he captured the moments and movements of life in all their intimate and natural detail. He worked mostly in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid, not feeling comfortable photographing his native France until later in life. In the 1930s, his photos were exhibited in New York (1932), Madrid (1932), and in Mexico (1934).
Cartier-Bresson’s photography career was interrupted by the Second World War. After the end of WWII, he and his comrades Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert, and George Rodger founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative picture agency owned by its members. Working as a photojournalist and keeping his own candid style, Cartier-Bresson took assignments in India and China, capturing images of Gandhi’s funeral in 1948, the last stage of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the rule of the Maoist People’s Republic. Cartier-Bresson captured the images of the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing before moving on to Indonesia where he photographed the country as it became independent from Dutch rule.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Cartier-Bresson traveled around the world. He became the first Western photographer to openly photograph in the Soviet Union. His images, distributed by Magnum, were widely known in the journals and newsletters of the Western world. However, in the mid 1960s, Cartier-Bresson decided to give up photography and return to his roots in drawing and painting. He retired as a principal of Magnum Photos and focused entirely on his art, taking only a few private photographs, until his death in 2004.