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Henri Cartier-Bresson. A name that still reverberates in the photographic industry. A name that is synonymous with photojournalism and the founding of the almost-mythical Magnum Photos....
“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms, which gives that event its proper expression… In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson
(c) George Platt Lynes
Born on August 22 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie near Paris, France to a family of five children, Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered the father of modern photojournalism and one of the, if not the most pivotal chief instigator of the 35mm film format. Like Claude Debussy is to modern motion picture soundtracks, Cartier-Bresson’s work epitomised the beginning of the gritty ‘street photography’ style that has stayed dominant till today.
Cartier-Bresson, though a photographer of renown, hated to be photographed. For him, his treasure was his privacy, which is why there are few and far between photos that portray him in any way that have made their way to the public. His sense of privacy was such that when he accepted an honorary degree from Oxford University (1975), he actually held out a paper to hide his face from being photographed. He once revealed his innermost secrets to a Paris cab driver, knowing for certain that he would never meet him again.
Degas once said, “It’s wonderful to be famous as long as you remain unknown,” a remark that Cartier-Bresson took to heart and thrived to be invisible to the attention of others. In the United States, Cartier-Bresson was known to travel at times under an alias, Hank Carter.
Cartier-Bresson came from an affluent family whose wealth was tied to textile manufacturing. His father created the family name that was to be the standard in French sewing threads while his mother’s Normandy descent hailed from cotton merchants and landowners and it was there that young Cartier-Bresson spent his initial childhood. With such affluence, there was no problem for Cartier-Bresson to pretty much do what his passion directed him to.
The Early Development Years
Cartier-Bresson studied at the Parisian Catholic École Fénelon school where in his formative years he took to his uncle Louis whom he regarded as father-like to him. It was his uncle – his father’s brother – who took him to his studio during the Christmas holidays in 1913 where he was introduced to oil painting. His first obsession was thence founded in painting where Cartier-Bresson lived and breathed the scent of oil paints off the canvases. Unfortunately inspiration from his uncle was cruelly cut short as he died during World War I.
When he was 19 years of age (1927), Cartier-Bresson took his passion for painting a step further and enrolled in a private art school as well as the Lhote Academy. The latter was a Parisian studio owned and run by André Lhote, a Cubist painter and sculptor. Cartier-Bresson also went on to study painting under the watchful eyes of Jacques Émile Blanche while like most everyone else during that time indulged in reading the works of Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce including Marx and Engels.
However it was Lhote who provided the fuel for his growth, taking his students – including Cartier-Bresson – to the Louvre and other galleries in and around Paris to study contemporary art. Combine that with his intuitive passion for modern and impressionistic art forms, it was no surprise that Cartier-Bresson would eventually veer. Without a doubt, Lhote’s influence was instrumental – someone that Cartier-Bresson would ultimately attribute to as his teacher of photography albeit without a camera.
Cartier-Bresson learned tremendously from Lhote’s discipline and rhetoric about theories. Although he was keen to break out into his own yearning to express, it was Lhote who gave him the fundamentals that were necessary for him to resolve problems; first in painting and then later on in photography. It was also at this time that right across Europe, photographic realism was beginning to mushroom but opinions were divided. There was not much common ground as different schools were marching to different tunes but all the same, they were united in wanting to liberalise the medium. Almost coincidentally 1924 also saw the arrival of the surrealism movement that expedited Cartier-Bresson’s learning curve where he was essentially captivated with the concept of blending the subconscious with the present.
Cartier-Bresson’s understanding of painting did not equip him well despite the dramatic changes in the cultural and political climate that was storming Europe then. While he was eager to liberate himself, he was also caught up in his own inabilities to find a way to do so and in his frustration he destroyed much of his own paintings at that time.
Prior to the turn of the decade, Cartier-Bresson studied English art and literature at the University of Cambridge in England. It was then that he began to master his second language. In 1931 after completing his national service with the French Army, Cartier-Bresson parted ways with Lhote, citing a refusal to allow rigidity to overcome his sense of freedom and expression, and decided to head to Côte d’Ivoire on the French coast of Africa with a Box Brownie he received as a gift from his parents. It was there that his desire to paint became alive once more. With no ready income available, Cartier-Bresson would go game hunting and sell to local villagers. His experiences with hunting would eventually come in handy in his eventual style of photography but naturally it wasn’t something he actually pre-empted.