Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, the oldest of five children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. His mother’s family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy, where Henri spent part of his childhood. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in a bourgeois neighborhood in Paris, Rue de Lisbonne, near Place de l’Europe and Parc Monceau. His parents supported him financially so Henri could pursue photography more freely than his contemporaries. Henri also sketched in his spare time.
Young Henri took holiday snapshots with a Box Brownie; he later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. He was raised in traditional French bourgeois fashion, and was required to address his parents with formal vous rather than tu. His father assumed that his son would take up the family business, but Henri was strong-willed and also feared this prospect.
Henri attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school that prepared students for the Lycée Condorcet. A governess called “Miss Kitty” who came from across the Channel, instilled in him the love of – and competence in – the English language. The proctor caught him reading a book by Rimbaud or Mallarmé, and reprimanded him, “Let’s have no disorder in your studies!”. Cartier-Bresson said, “He used the informal ‘tu’, which usually meant you were about to get a good thrashing. But he went on, ‘You’re going to read in my office.’ Well, that wasn’t an offer he had to repeat.”
After trying to learn music, Henri was introduced to oil painting by his uncle Louis, a gifted painter. But the painting lessons were cut short, when uncle Louis was killed in World War I.
In 1927 Cartier-Bresson entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. Lhote’s ambition was to integrate the Cubists’ approach to reality with classical artistic forms; he wanted to link the French classical tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David to Modernism. Cartier-Bresson also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche. During this period, he read Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels and Marx. Lhote took his pupils to the Louvre to study classical artists and to Parisian galleries to study contemporary art. Cartier-Bresson’s interest in modern art was combined with an admiration for the works of the Renaissance masters: Jan van Eyck, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca. Cartier-Bresson regarded Lhote as his teacher of “photography without a camera.”
Surrealists photography influence
Although Cartier-Bresson became frustrated with Lhote’s “rule-laden” approach to art, the rigorous theoretical training later helped him identify and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography. In the 1920s, schools of photographic realism were popping up throughout Europe but each had a different view on the direction photography should take. The Surrealist movement, founded in 1924, was a catalyst for this paradigm shift. Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists at the Café Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. He met a number of the movement’s leading protagonists, and was drawn to the Surrealist movement’s technique of using the subconscious and the immediate to influence their work. The historian Peter Galassi explains:
The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton…approached the street: with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual…The Surrealists recognized in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.
Cartier-Bresson matured artistically in this stormy cultural and political atmosphere. But, although he knew the concepts, he couldn’t express them; dissatisfied with his experiments, he destroyed most of his early paintings.
Cambridge and Army
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson studied, art, literature, and English at the University of Cambridge, where he became bilingual. In 1930, during conscription in the French Army at Le Bourget near Paris, he remembered, “And I had quite a hard time of it, too, because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder.”
Caresse Crosby affair
In 1929, Cartier-Bresson’s air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without a license. Cartier-Bresson met American expatriate Harry Crosby at Le Bourget, who persuaded the commandant to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody for a few days. Finding their mutual interest in photography, and they spent their time together taking and printing pictures at Crosby’s home, Le Moulin du Soleil (The Sun Mill), near Paris in Ermenonville, France.: Crosby later said Cartier-Bresson “looked like a fledgling, shy and frail, and mild as whey.” Embracing the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse, Cartier-Bresson fell into an intense sexual relationship with her.
Escape to Africa
Two years after Harry Crosby committed suicide, Cartier-Bresson’s affair with Caresse Crosby ended in 1931, leaving him broken hearted. During conscription he read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This gave him the idea of escaping and finding adventure on the Côte d’Ivoire in French colonial Africa. He survived by shooting game and selling it to local villagers. From hunting, he learned methods which he later used in photography. On the Côte d’Ivoire, he contracted blackwater fever, which nearly killed him. While still feverish, he sent instructions to his grandfather for his own funeral, asking to be buried in Normandy, at the edge of the Eawy forest while Debussy’s String Quartet was played. Although Cartier-Bresson took a portable camera (smaller than a Brownie Box) to Côte d’Ivoire, only seven photographs survived the tropics.
Returning to France, Cartier-Bresson recuperated in Marseille in late 1931 and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. He became inspired by a 1930 photograph by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi showing three naked young African boys, caught in near-silhouette, running into the surf of Lake Tanganyika. Titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, this captured the freedom, grace and spontaneity of their movement and their joy at being alive. That photograph inspired him to stop painting and to take up photography seriously. He explained, “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.”
He acquired the Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles that would accompany him for many years. The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. He enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint. The Leica opened up new possibilities in photography — the ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. Restless, he photographed in Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. His photographs were first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. In 1934 in Mexico, he shared an exhibition with Manuel Alvarez Bravo. In the beginning, he did not photograph much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed there extensively.
In 1934 Cartier-Bresson met a young Polish intellectual, a photographer named David Szymin who was called “Chim” because his name was difficult to pronounce. Szymin later changed his name to David Seymour. The two had much in common culturally. Through Chim, Cartier-Bresson met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa.
Henri Cartier Bresson (22 de agosto de 1908 – 3 de agosto de 2004) fue un célebre fotógrafo francés considerado por muchos el padre del fotorreportaje. Predicó siempre con la idea de atrapar el instante decisivo, versión traducida de sus “imágenes a hurtadillas”. Se trataba, pues, de poner la cabeza, el ojo y el corazón en el mismo momento en el que se desarrolla el clímax de una acción.
A lo largo de su carrera, tuvo la oportunidad de retratar a personajes como Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marie Curie, Édith Piaf, Fidel Castro y Ernesto “Che” Guevara. También cubrió importantes eventos, como la muerte de Gandhi, la Guerra Civil Española, donde filmó el documental sobre el bando republicano “Victorie de la vie”, la SGM, en la que estuvo en la Unidad de Cine y Fotografía del ejército galo o la entrada triunfal de Mao Zedong a Pekín. Cartier Bresson fue el primer periodista occidental que pudo visitar la Unión Soviética tras la muerte de Stalin.
Su obra fue expuesta, en el museo del Louvre, en París, en 1955.
Fue cofundador de la Agencia Magnum.
Junto a su esposa, la también fotógrafa Martine Frank, creó en el año 2000 una fundación encargada de reunir sus mejores obras, situada en el barrio parisino de Montparnasse.
En 2003, Heinz Bütler dirigió la película suiza Henri Cartier Bresson Biographie eines Blicks, documental biográfico interpretado por el propio Cartier-Bresson además de Isabelle Huppert, entre otros.
Para algunos, Cartier Bresson es una figura mítica en la fotografía del siglo XX. Uno de sus mejores biógrafos (Pierre Assouline) lo apelaría como «el ojo del siglo».
En el año 1982 recibió el Premio internacional de la fundación Hasselblad.