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It wasn’t until 1948 that Cartier-Bresson hit pay dirt with his coverage of Gandhi’s funeral in India followed by the ending stages of the Chinese Civil War a year on. In China, his images captured not only the final six months of the outgoing Kuomintang administration followed by the emergence of Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic movement but also the remaining eunuchs of Imperial China in Beijing in the last days of the country’s dynastial reign. Cartier-Bresson set forth then for Indonesia – then known as Dutch East Indies – to cover Soekarno’s rise to power in the independence movement from the Dutch.
In fact Cartier-Bresson went farther, covering countries like Mexico, Canada, the United States, Japan and Soviet Union amongst countless others. In post-war Soviet Union, he was the first and only Western photographer who had carte blanche coverage to photograph ‘freely.’
Henri Cartier-Bresson (c) Magnum Photos
It was in 1952 that the world came to know of one of Cartier-Bresson’s most famous terminology, namely ‘The Decisive Moment’ when he published his next book called ‘Images à la sauvette’ (vaguely meaning ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images’), comprising 126 of his photographs captured from his tour of India, China and other countries. In the preface for the book, Cartier-Bresson took excerpts from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz that read in translated English as, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”
What is essential here is that Cartier-Bresson used ‘the decisive moment’ as a principle or guiding light that defined his photographic art form. This was best expressed by what he had to say:
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms that give that event its proper expression.”
He went on to say, “Photography is not like painting…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.”
“Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
That decisive moment is best shown in Cartier-Bresson’s signature photograph taken in 1932 behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, capturing a man leaping across a large puddle of water almost at the point but not quite crashing into the pool. Stilled by his camera shutter for just that millisecond and frozen eternally in time, Cartier-Bresson’s interpretation of the decisive moment was more than merely stopping action.
His strong background in traditional French painting and being drawn to the emergence of the ‘golden proportion’ at that time, remnants of his first mentor, Andre Lhote’s rhetoric was evident when he claimed that geometric composition was also vital. In the preface to his seminal 1952 book, ‘The Decisive Moment,’ he defined his style of photography as:
“…the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms.”
Cartier-Bresson just knew where he needed to be at the right time and at the right moment. It was either that his camera found him or he found his camera at life’s most intuitive and significant turns. Cartier-Bresson’s wife, photographer Martine Franck said, “I think Henri had an innate intuition of what was going on in the world and what was important. I mean, you were in India when Gandhi was assassinated. You were in China when the communists arrived… You were in Russia at the right time.”
Despite this, Cartier-Bresson himself said, “People often say that I have been in the right place at the right time. What they really mean is that I follow the newspapers in order to get a sense of what is happening in the world.” Cartier-Bresson’s uncanny ability as a photojournalist is epitomised in the countless images that capture the world in transition. In his 1955 book called, ‘The Europeans,’ he defined the role by saying, “I was there and this is how life appeared to me at that moment.”
If you take these two statements and grind them together with all his images that are archived at Magnum Photos, there you will have the penultimate essence of what photojournalism is – the anticipation of a significant event where Cartier-Bresson managed to find himself in position to capture with captivation and thoroughness, edited into film and with text and captions added and then witnessed throughout magazines and pictorials a world he witnessed and communicated to a mass audience.
And all this while, Cartier-Bresson’s works have been seen elsewhere but his home country. It took until 1955 for his first exhibition in France to bear fruit at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre.
For more than thirty years Cartier-Bresson worked on assignment for LIFE Magazine including other journals, courting far-flung places throughout the world to achieve the images that would eventually bring him fame. His images document some of the greatest events of the previous century including the Spanish Civil War, the 1945 liberation of Paris as well as the 1968 student rebellion, the assassination of Gandhi, the Berlin Wall and the deserts of Egypt. He also completed portraits of Sartre, Picasso, Colette, Matisse (who painted one of the book covers for Cartier-Bresson), Pound and Giacometti.
The Twilight Years
The Sixties was a significant period in Cartier-Bresson’s life. In 1966 he withdrew from his position as a principal of Magnum Photos although his photographs continued to be distributed. A year later (1967) he divorced his wife Ratna and three years later, married Martine Franck, a Belgian photographer in her own right who was thirty years younger. In 1968 thirteen years after his first French exhibit (1968), Cartier-Bresson began winding down his photography, concentrating instead on his drawing and painting. In 1972 he and Martine adopted a little girl named Mélanie as their daughter.
Cartier-Bresson in 1992 (c) Martine Franck
Martine Franck herself was a very accomplished photographer in her own right. As early as 1963 she worked as a photographer for TIME-LIFE in Paris. Three yeas later she met Cartier-Bresson while covering the Parisian fashion shows for the New York Times. After her marriage to Cartier-Bresson, she worked at the Vu photo agency in Paris until 1971 and thereafter co-founded the Viva agency in 1972.
Martine Franck (c) Magnum Photos
Apart from her work in promoting Cartier-Bresson’s legacy, Franck had also become a full member of Magnum Photos in 1983 and was an accomplished contributor to the Vogue magazine. She has also been the official photographer for the Théâtre du Soleil since 1964. Her major projects of note included the documentation of the ancient Gaelic community in Ireland, the education system of the Tibetan Tulkus monks as well as a series of children’s fashion in 2006 for the Japan Vogue magazine.