Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was the eldest of five children. He liked to point out that he was a descendant of Charlotte Corday, the girl from Camembert who assassinated Marat in his bath. Cartier-Bresson’s father was a wealthy textile manufacturer – at one time almost every French sewing kit contained a Cartier-Bresson cotton reel – but he was so tight-fisted that, as a small boy, Henri always assumed the family was poor.
The young Cartier-Bresson had a Box Brownie that he used to take holiday snaps. He was also a fanatical reader of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Conrad, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche - and a book on Schopenhauer that led him to Eastern philosophy. "That had a huge effect on me,'' he said. "I had never been a Christian believer. My mother once said: 'Poor dear, if only you had a good Dominican confessor, you wouldn't be in such a fix!"'
At 15, Cartier-Bresson saw Seurat's painting of nude models in a gallery window, and it changed his life. ‘Before that I'd been a Boy Scout’, he said. He went to the Café Cyrano, to sit at the Surrealists' table while André Breton held forth. "The trouble was, I never got close enough to the centre of the table," he joked, "so I missed a lot of what Breton was saying."
While still a teenager, Cartier-Bresson was struck by the work of the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi. "I said to myself: 'How can one do that?' - that combination of plastic beauty and vitality. When I saw those photographs, I said to myself: 'Now here's something to do.'
At 19, he studied painting in Paris, followed by national service in the French Army. "I had quite a hard time of it,’ he said, ’because I was toting Joyce under my arm and a Lebel rifle on my shoulder." But, steeped in Rimbaud and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the moment he was out of the Army he headed for Africa looking for adventure. He hunted boar and antelope, supporting himself by selling their meat to the locals. Then, in the Ivory Coast in 1931, he began taking photographs.
His career nearly came to an end right there: he contracted blackwater fever and almost died. According to his own account, a witch doctor got him out of a coma. While still feverish, he wrote a postcard to his grandfather, asking to be buried in Normandy, on the edge of the forest, with Debussy's String Quartet played at his funeral. An uncle wrote back: "Your grandfather finds all that too expensive. It would be preferable that you return first."
Cartier-Bresson was renowned for his skill at remaining undetected when taking photographs. Except for portraits, his subjects are rarely seen looking into the lens. He wound black tape round his Leica to mask its shiny surfaces and kept it tied to his wrist and hidden under his coat at all times for instant action. Instead of fiddly lens caps, he liked to use the rubber lids from jam-jars.
Pictures of Cartier-Bresson himself are rare. He didn’t like being photographed and went out of his way to avoid it. He claimed that the main reason for his aversion was that he didn’t want to be photographed for his popularity or fame. It wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t like being photographed on principle.
Towards the end of his life, Cartier-Bresson went to the Pompidou Center in Paris to sketch a Matisse portrait. Balanced on his favorite shooting stick, his nose buried in his drawing, he paid no attention to the tourists who gathered around taking his picture and videotaping him. They seemed unaware of who he was but were apparently charmed by the sight of an old man sketching. When he got up to leave, he noticed a couple sitting side by side on a bench, a child resting on the man's shoulder. "A perfect composition if you cut out the woman," Mr. Cartier-Bresson said, and made a brisk, chopping gesture toward her. The woman looked baffled. "Why didn't I bring my camera?" he asked. Then he clicked an imaginary shutter and left. Henri Cartier-Bresson died peacefully in Montjustin, Provence on August 3rd, 2004, just under three weeks before his 96th birthday.
After the war, in 1947, he went to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of his war photographs of refugees. The exhibition had to be hastily reorganized: it been planned a few years earlier as a posthumous tribute, when the rumor was that he been killed by the Germans.
Cartier-Bresson then travelled to China where he witnessed the last six months of the Chinese nationalist Party and the first six months of the People’s Republic. When Mao's forces seized Peking, Cartier-Bresson was on the last flight out, but was later arrested and spent five weeks as a prisoner of the Communists.
Cartier-Bresson photographed William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe and, in 1948, went to India to photograph Gandhi. After the session, he showed him the catalogue of his Museum of Modern Art exhibition. 15 minutes after they parted, Cartier-Bresson heard shouts that Gandhi had been killed. He rushed back. The first frame of his contact sheet is captioned "place where Gandhi fell half an hour before." His photo essay on the tragedy for LIFE magazine is the definitive record of the event.
In 1949, he photographed the end of Indonesia’s bloody five-year struggle for independence from the Dutch and in 1954 was the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union after the death of Josef Stalin the previous year.
Bow, arrow, goal and ego melt into one another. As soon as I take a bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and ridiculously simple.
In 1936, Cartier-Bresson assisted the director Jean Renoir on a propaganda film for the French Communist Party, denouncing the 200 most prominent families in France, Cartier-Bresson's among them. ‘I was not a Communist and neither was the majority of the crew’, Renoir later remarked.
Cartier-Bresson never joined the Communist Party either, but always had a strong sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. He went on to work with Renoir on Une Partie de Campagne ‘A Day In The Country’ (1936) and La Regle du Jeu ‘The Rules of the Game’ (1939).
When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Cartier-Bresson became a corporal in the Army's Film and Photo Unit, but was captured the following month and spent the next three years in a prisoner-of-war camp. He escaped in 1943, on his third attempt, disguised as a funeral mourner. He said of his experiences as a POW: "For a young bourgeois with Surrealist ideas, breaking stone and working in a cement factory was a very good lesson”.
In 1943, he started working for a secret Resistance organisation, helping prisoners and escapees. In the same year, he photographed Picasso, Braque, and Matisse.
No photographer alive has a more secure position in the history of art than Henri Cartier-Bresson – aesthete, man of action, artist and reporter.
In 1932, Cartier-Bresson’s friend, the poet and painter Max Jacob, introduced him to a fortune-teller. According to Cartier-Bresson, she told him that he would "marry someone who would not be from India, or from China, but would also not be white”.
Looking back on his life in the 70s, Cartier-Bresson said: "There are certain things you can't just make up. In 1937, I married a Javanese woman. This fortune-teller had also told me that the marriage would be difficult, but that when I was old, I would marry someone much younger than I, and would be very happy."
In 1967, Cartier-Bresson and his first wife, Ratna Mohini, a Javanese dancer divorced after 30 years and in 1970 he married Martine Franck, a photojournalist 30 years younger than himself. They had one daughter, Mélanie.
Most of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs were taken on a simple 35mm Leica with an ordinary 50mm lens. He had three rules: he never contrived a picture, never used artificial light and never retouched the results.
The young Cartier-Bresson had a British nanny from Wolverhampton.
When travelling in the US, Cartier-Bresson used the alias Hank Carter.
In 1937, Henri was assigned to cover the coronation of George VI, he photographed the crowd rather than the procession.
In 1947, Henri co-founded the influential Magnum photo agency.
At 15, Cartier-Bresson drank mint liqueurs in a brothel where Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had gone to draw.
Cartier-Bresson’s schoolfriends called him ‘the quivering eel' because he was always slipping off somewhere.
At aged 19 Cartier-Bresson spent a year in Cambridge, learning English.
When he was given an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1975, he held a piece of paper in front of his face to avoid being caught on film.
In 1929, Cartier-Bresson's air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without a license.
In Côte d'Ivoire, Cartier-Bresson survived by shooting game and selling it to local villagers.