Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who lived from August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2003. He is considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. He helped develop the “street photography” or “real life reportage” style that many photographers after him have adopted.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s family was able to support his interests in photography in an independent manner, moreso than many other photojournalists. His first camera was a Box Brownie, using it for taking holiday snapshots. Later in his life he experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was assumed to take up the family business by his father, but he had other plans. Henri Cartier-Bresson attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students to attend Lycée Condorcet. He studied art and read a lot; eventually when the Surrealist movement began in 1924, Henri Cartier-Bresson was all in it. Inspired, he struggled because he could not find a way of expressing this imaginatively in his paintings. He was very frustrated with his experiments and subsequently destroyed the majority of his early works. He attended the University of Cambridge studying English, art, and literature; graduating in 1929. In 1930, he found a photograph by Martin Munkacsi and was inspired to stop painting and to pursue photography more seriously.
“I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.”
Throughout his life he worked with many different types of visual arts including film (as well as acting), photography, sketching, painting, etc. His first photojournalist photos were published in 1937 when he covered the coronation of King George VI, for the French weekly Regards. He took no photos of the king, but instead focused on the new monarch’s adoring subjects lining the London streets.
“Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
He became the first Western photographer to photograph “freely” in the post-war Soviet Union. Cartier-Bresson in 1966 stepped away from war photography to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes. In 1967, he divorced his wife of 30 years, the following year turning away from photography and returning to his passion for drawing and painting. He admitted that perhaps he had said all he could through photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson retired from photography in the early 1970s, abstaining from taking any photos other than an occasional private portrait by 1975. Instead, he returned to drawing and painting.
After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through photography, he said, “All I care about these days is painting—photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”