Henri Cartier-Bresson: Surrealism, Photojournalism, and Outdoor Photography

Photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in a bourgeoisie family of a wealth French textile manufacturer and was talked to in vous rather than in tu—meaning an extreme amount of correctness and familiarity—to become the owner of the family business afterwards.

However he was not really inspired by this idea and preferred taking holiday photos with a Brownie Box and 3×4 inch view cameras as well as sketching in his spare time, which he could afford because his family helped him in every new devotion.

In 1927—and that was when his father was perfectly sure that the son won't follow his textile business steps—Cartier-Bresson entered an art school where he studied painting with André Lhote whom he regarded as his teacher of "photography without a camera".

Photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson

The 1920s was a time of extensive development of photography schools throughout Europe and that was exactly the moment when the protagonist got familiar with the photography surrealism movement. A technique that he acquired from it was using the subconscious and the immediate to influence his work. The surrealists said that the photos "contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings", especially if divided from their practical functions.

However, Cartier-Bresson couldn't really manage to express these ideas in his works and gave up on photography for a short time by going to Côte d'Ivoire. After that he returned back to France late in 1931 and happened to run across a photo of Martin Munkacsi titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika. He was deeply impressed by it and later said: "Damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street."

Photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson

Afterwards he bought Leica camera that became his sidekick for many years. He once said it was an extension of his eye. He started shooting in Europe and gave his first photo exhibitions in the US and Mexico.

In 1934 Cartier-Bresson met David Seymour and Robert Capa, who were photographers too, and started sharing a studio together. Once Robert Capa gave him a piece of advice that became the cornerstone of his further photography life: "Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don't fidget. Get moving!" That's how Cartier-Bresson became the father of photojournalism and outdoor photography.

The three founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative picture agency, where they published photos they took around the world. Henri made his title of a great photographer at Magnum when he shot Gandhi's funerals and the Chinese Civil war. As the cooperative founders said, its aim was to "feel the pulse" of the time and "use photography in the service of humanity."

Photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson

Later Cartier-Bresson published his photography book whose title was translated to English as The Decisive Moment. "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment," said he.

He shot in many places like China, Mexico, Canada, the United States, India, Japan, and the Soviet Union and managed to make portraits of Igor Stravinsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gandhi, Pablo Picasso, Albert Camus, Queen Elizabeth II, Martin Luther King Marylyn Monroe, and so on.

Photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson

He often said that the photographer's creativity is all about the moment and when exactly to capture it in the most lively way using intuition. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

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