“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”— Henri Cartier-Bresson
Of the 96 years of his life, Cartier-Bresson devoted half a century to photography, and if he had not succumbed to the temptation of seeking recognition as a painter and draftsman in his old age, this period would have been even longer. "The eye of the century," as Pierre Assouline called him, was an incomparable eyewitness and observer: "It makes one shudder to imagine what all this eye has seen." CartierBresson captured the world in a veritably encyclopedic way. With somnambulistic sureness he was often at places where history was in the making. He visited Mahatma Gandhi shortly before his assassination, and recorded an India in agony (1948). In China, he witnessed the last six months of the Kuomintang government and the victory of Mao Zedong (1949). In Indonesia, he was on the spot as the country was throwing off Dutch colonial rule (1950).
Active for two decades for the Magnum cooperative, which he co-founded in 1947, Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist, but this apparently light-hearted world traveler and flåneur was more than a reporter. He was an adventurer of vision, who not only traveled through countless countries but lived in some of them for a time, in order to gain intimate knowledge of cultures and peoples. He turned his large, childlike eyes not only on historically significant events but also on the vicissitudes of daily life. A gentleman photographer, he detested making his own prints, and entrusted this darkroom work to others.
No other photographer left behind so many icons of the medium as Cartier-Bresson. Take the picture of those two gentleman of Brussels, covertly peeping through holes in a canvas fence (1932), the hatted fellowjumping over a huge puddle behind St. Lazare Station (1932), the ladies of pleasure in Alicante, or—icon of icons—the boy with the bottles on Rue Mouffetard in Paris (1952). Or one thinks of Matisse, photographed in Vence as he was drawing a dove, and the wonderful portraits of Alberto Giacometti. How many timeless portraits Cartier-Bresson produced, of artists, composers, and writers—sometimes in an unobserved moment, sometimes in a studio session that would have done justice to a psychoanalyst's couch.
The son of a prosperous manufacturing family, whose butler addressed him as "Monsieur Henri" from an early age, Cartier-Bresson belonged to the bright young people of the day, moved easily in high society, and found entry to intellectual circles. He was a habitué of the group around André Breton, high priest of Surrealism, and on friendly terms with Max Ernst, Michel Leiris, and Jacques Prévert. This background explains the meaning of the "decisive moment" in his work, that celebrated fraction of a second or chance instant that became Cartier-Bresson's prime accomplice. It is thanks to the English translation—The Decisive Moment—of his book Images la sauvette, published in Paris in 1952, that he became almost too exclusively associated with the "serendipitous moment"—the photographer as hunter, prowling the streets with his Leica, to expose people in flagranti. With his demand that photography be unplanned, unexpected, that it simply happens by chance, Cartier-Bresson provided a counterpart to Surrealist "automatic writing." "One mustn't force anything," he once said. "If you try to force something, nothing will come of it." Yet more than accident, what really counted for him were geometry and structure.
Geometry, infused with musicality and a sense of rhythm, was the true formula of his art. Fittingly, Cartier-Bresson held a lifelong admiration for Paul Cézanne, the father of Cubist abstraction. "Mind, eye and heart must be brought into line," was his photographic credo. And with this classic combination of feeling, rationality, and a clear eye, Cartier-Bresson became the major representative of t'humanistic photography" in the 20th century. In 1966, and so during his lifetime, the Louvre honored him with an exhibition, the first ever devoted to a photographer by this illustrious institution.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan