Henri Cartier-Bresson and His Most Famous Photos

Martine Franck - Henri Cartier-Bresson drawing a self-portrait in his studio, 1992. Martine Franck - Henri Cartier-Bresson drawing a self-portrait in his studio, 1992. Sold for £4,200 via Phillips (May 2019).

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are a time machine. Not just a time machine to a specific date, period or era, but to an exact moment. An impulsive, spontaneous moment of everyday life that the French photographer would come to describe as the “decisive moment” that would make him a much imitated pioneer of street photography who witnessed some of the 20th century’s key events.

“To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers

As the godfather of modern photojournalism who inspired generations of amateur street photographers, no one advanced the practice further than Cartier-Bresson. His nomadic approach to photography helped him to capture some of the most momentous events and sites in modern history, from the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation to civil wars across the world.

Cartier-Bresson was born into a wealthy family in northern France in 1908. This comfortable background affording him the chance to be an early adopter of 35mm film at a time when it was an unpredictable and unheralded art form. This allowed Cartier-Bresson to showcase the artistic inspiration he took from Impressionism and Surrealism, alongside his mastery of street photography.

The Louvre provided an early source of inspiration for the young photographer, who embraced the unique perspectives of the Renaissance giants, Jan van Eyck and Piero Della Francesca, while he greatly admired the work of Pablo Picasso and his Cubist masterpieces. Combining the best of the old and the new, he also absorbed the wealth of contemporary art in Paris before he was conscripted into the French army in 1930.

He re-joined French military as a photographer at the outbreak of World War II. He was captured and taken prisoner in a German labor camp, where he was held for three years. He escaped on his third attempt and if his devotion to the camera was ever in question, one of his first actions was to return to the hiding spot where he buried his 35 mm Leica camera prior to capture, and retrieved it.

Only war could separate Cartier-Bresson from his camera and he emerged from the ashes of conflict as one of the preeminent photo journalists in the world. His “decisive moment” would come to epitomise the spontaneous authenticity of the shots he loved to capture. Spotting the social chameleon in action wasn’t easy though. He would linger for hours, quietly observing and patiently waiting for the perfect shot. Often he would capture the shot unnoticed by his subject, with his Leica wrapped in black tape to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

By the end of 1950, Cartier-Bresson’s stock couldn’t have been higher. He was awarded the US Camera Prize for best reportage of the year for his coverage of Gandhi’s final days and the aftermath of his death, the Prix de la Société Française de Photographie in 1959, and the prestigious Overseas Press Club honored him four times for his pictures in Shanghai in 1948 Nanking (Nanjing) in 1949. He also left a lasting legacy when, along with his contemporaries, he co-founded Magnum Photo Agency with Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger in 1947. Magnum was a revolutionary photographer cooperative owned by its members that linked them with potential clients around the world.

Cartier-Bresson hung up his camera for good in 1970, when he picked up the paintbrush. But his legacy behind the camera still speaks loudest, thanks to his photography’s ability to create visual documents of remarkable spontaneity that remain as vibrant, vivid, and powerful as they did almost 100 years ago.

Place de l’Europe, Behind Gare Saint Lazare (1932)

If there was one picture to clearly and expressively describe Bresson’s “decisive moment” to an audience adjusting to the emerging technology of the camera, then it’s Place de l’Europe Gare Saint Lazare. Cartier-Bresson’s impulsive masterpiece picturing a man suspended in mid-air as he hops over a large puddle creates a sense of anticipation as he captures the dynamic movement of an unaware participant in the decisive moment: the instant before his heel hits the water.

Captured outside the bustling Saint Lazare train station in Paris, the “decisive moment” took full advantage of advancing technology with the latest camera, lens, and film. This helped Cartier-Bresson to pick out the contrasting ornamented spiked fence with the hazy building in the background and the still clearness of the reflection of the urban setting. The leaping subject of the photo is even echoed in a poster behind him: a dancer leaps enthusiastically into the air in an advertisement for the Railowsky circus.

Place de l’Europe is notably one of only a few photographs that Cartier-Bresson ever chose to crop. As a famed impulsive photographer he avoided adjusting his work where possible, but he removed a fence in the foreground that partially obscured the view and could have detracted from the main subject.

Hyères, France (1932)

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Hyères, France.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Hyères, France. Sold for $265,000 via Christie’s (April 2008).

Perched at the top of a spiral staircase in Hyères, on the French Mediterranean coast, Bresson’s picture is a wonderful example of importance of form in a deceptively simple, yet engaging composition. The arching staircase grabs the viewer’s attention as it spirals down to the street where a cyclist, in a blur of momentum, occupies the space between architectural elements.

There’s a sense of geometry and order in the perfectly composed picture. Its geometric structure points towards Cartier-Bresson’s fascination with the fractured planes of Cubism, while the cyclist – in a blurred and dramatic motion – fills the exact void between the building and the crisp, clearly defined stair railing.

Taken on vacation in the Cote d’Azure region, the Surrealist Andre Breton described the photograph as the moment when “shadow and prey mingled in a unique flash”.

Seville (1933)

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Seville, Spain, 1933.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Seville, Spain, 1933. Sold for $10,000 via Phillips (December 2017).

Honing his ability to seem invisible, which he would fully embrace as a photojournalist during World War II, Cartier-Bresson’s apparent ability to camouflage himself from his subjects ensured a spontaneity to this incongruous photo of children playing among ruined buildings.

The year before this shot was taken, Cartier-Bresson had set out on a tour of southern Europe with his 35mm Leica, stopping in Seville to capture children taking over a scene of destruction to joyfully and uninhibitedly play among the desolation. Unaware they’re being photographed, the ragged edges of the damaged wall offer a frame to peak through, which invites the viewer to voyeuristically look on, undiscovered.

Often misattributed as a photo from the Spanish Civil War, which wouldn’t break out for a few years after this photo was taken, Andre Breton used the image to illustrate his chapter on the Spanish Civil War in his 1937 book, Mad Love.

Italy (1933)

Alongside the Impressionist influence of Juvisy (more on that later), Cartier-Bresson also expressed on obvious fondness for Surrealism, which was likely implanted during his museum-filled education in Paris. With the help of his friends, writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Surrealist, Léonor Fini, the pair are entwined to form one surreal being.

Photographed from above against a horizonless background, it is clearly a Surrealist picture that features many of the movement’s major themes and demands viewers absorb the “convulsive beauty” espoused by Surrealist leader, André Breton.

Perhaps not what he’s best known for, but Surrealism had a meaningful impact on Cartier-Bresson’s work during his developmental years. And it resurfaced again as late as the 1960s.

Natcho Aguirre, Santa Clara (1934)

Following on from the Surrealism of his portrait of André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Léonor Fini intertwined, Cartier-Bresson’s use of anonymity is powerfully used during a trip to Mexico in 1934. This time it’s an unnerving and ambiguous portrait of a half-naked man writhing and contorting in either agony or ecstasy, creating an unsettling image that leaves it up to viewers to decide the emotion behind it.

Typical of some of the major themes of Surrealism, like deformed or fragmented bodies, disembodied limbs, heads, torsos, mannequins, obscured objects, and often bizarre juxtapositions of unrelated objects, Natcho Aguirre mirrors all of these elements.

There is no logic to this image – note the unrelated piles of shoes – as it has no other story to tell that its own artistic merit in a piece with an erotic undercurrent that captures Breton’s “convulsive beauty.”

Coronation of King George VI, London (1937)

Covering the coronation of King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) for the French weekly Regard, Cartier-Bresson took a typically humane approach to the assignment. He ignored the procession of the King and carriage in favour of the reaction of the people, much to his employer’s frustration.

Focused on an expectant crowd sat on the steps of Trafalgar Square, the busy scene has Cartier-Bresson’s typical knack for capturing juxtaposition at its heart, with the patient and orderly crowd waiting to glimpse their new King, set against the sleeping man sprawled amid a mess of newspaper and litter from the crowd’s overnight vigil.

“It is through living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the world around us,” said Cartier-Bresson in The Modern Century. This idea of living through ourselves is shown in the importance he places on the diverse and united people in the composition, and not with the casket.

Juvisy, France (1938)

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Juvisy, France.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Juvisy, France. Sold for $96,000 via Sotheby’s (February 2006).

Showcasing Cartier-Bresson’s artistic roots, Juvisy is a scene typical of the Impressionist school and demonstrates the influence of painting in his photography. It could even be a working class alternative to Renoir’s celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party. And working class was of the essence of this commission from the left-wing newspaper, Ce Soir, documenting a workers’ movement to achieve more vacation time.

France at the time was a melting pot of ardent political ideas. War and occupation loomed on the horizon, and Cartier-Bresson was commissioned to document the effect of the Communist Party and the Radical Socialist Party, known as the Popular Front, coming to power in France.

Shot on the banks of the river Marne, this photograph was never published in the newspaper. Nevertheless it is now considered one of Cartier-Bresson’s classic images. The cascading arrangement of the photo can be seen as a celebration of long Sunday lunches and everyday life in France, painting an illustration of contemporary social and political events in the country.

Henri Matisse, Vence, France (1944)

On the run after escaping a German labor camp during the war, Cartier-Bresson joined an underground organization. The organization assisted prisoners in France when the publisher, Pierre Braun, commissioned him to photograph writers and artists for a book that was never published. This led Cartier-Bresson to some of the most prominent creative figures of the time – among them, Henri Matisse.

By 1944 Matisse’s, health was in decline when Cartier-Bresson visited his studio in Vence, Alpes-Maritimes, France, where a pocket of resistance still defied Nazi occupation. Matisse was largely confined to his chair and bed, following a major surgery three years earlier.

Differing from the spontaneous movement of some of his other works, Matisse’s creative energy is evident as he busily sketched and painted the white doves that flapped on top of their cage in his sun-lit room. To capture this energy, Cartier-Bresson characteristically faded into the background. He explained: “when I used to go and see Matisse, I’d sit in a corner, I didn’t move, we didn’t talk. It was as if we didn’t exist.”

Gestapo Informer Recognized by a Woman She Had Denounced, Deportation Camp, Dessau, Germany (1945)

As Europe emerged from the embers of World War II and the liberation of concentration camps began, Cartier-Bresson was there in the “decisive moments.” He captured moments of incredible emotion, power, and significance. His visit to Dessau was a decisive moment at a devastating point in the war.

The dramatic and impactful picture documents a woman rushing from the crowd to identify a Belgian woman, pictured lowering her head in shame, as a Nazi collaborator and Gestapo informer. The interview is filled with faces harrowed by war and even features a man in striped pyjamas to cement its place in history. In contrast to the hubbub, the camp commandant and interrogator sits calmly at a writing desk as he witnesses the shocking scene.

Cartier-Bresson was working with the Americans on a film for the Information Service about the homecoming of French prisoners of war, when he recalled: “It was a film by prisoners about prisoners. The scene played itself out before my eyes as my cameraman was filming it. I had my photography camera in my hand and released the shutter. The scene was not staged. Oddly, this picture doesn’t turn up in the film.”

Shanghai, China (1949)

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Shanghai, China.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Shanghai, China. Sold for $16,000 via Phillips (December 2017).

Life magazine sent Cartier-Bresson to China to cover the civil war and document the unrest that followed the political transition from the Chinese National Party, Kuomintang, to Communist rule under Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army. The unsettling picture captures the desperation of the time, as people seemingly squeeze into the frame in a frantic line of survival.

The claustrophobic crush seems to fuse the people’s desperation into a single body, referencing the people’s daily struggle. The queue is clambering to sell their gold as its value plummets amid a financial crisis, further impoverishing the already poor. The framing of the photo implants the idea that the desperate crush is spilling out far beyond the frame of the camera lens.

The photo’s striking sense of candid observation sits against the horror of events unfolding, to make it an image of great power. This power is given additional weight by the fact that it was taken before ten people died in the life-sapping, suffocating crush.

Alberto Giacometti (1961)

Sharing their approach to art, Cartier-Bresson and Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti had been friends since the mid-1930s. The two shared a world view and an inexhaustible curiosity about human beings. This curiosity of humans is encapsulated in the bustling portrait that is considerably lighter and even wittier in tone compared to his more sombre and serious compositions.

Unconsciously mimicking one of his own statues as he moves work ahead of his exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in Paris, Cartier-Bresson’s photo captures his friend’s characteristic nervousness. Giacometti is pictured shuffling in a blur with a cigarette clenched in his mouth. At the same time, he captures an unintentional elegance, showing artist and art moving virtually in tandem.

The photo features two of Giacometti’s celebrated sculptures, Grande Femme Debout (Large Standing Woman) and L’Homme Qui Marche (Walking Man), which have both appeared at auction, achieving £1,909,600 and £65,001,250 respectively when they went under the hammer in 2004 and 2010.

“I enjoy shooting a picture, being present,” said Cartier-Bresson in a 1971 interview. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ like the last words of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is one of the most tremendous works ever written. Photography is like that. It’s ‘yes, yes, and yes’. And there are no maybes. All the maybes should go into the trash, because it’s an instant, it’s a moment, it’s there. And it’s the respect of it and tremendous enjoyment to say, ‘Yes!’ Even if it’s something you hate. ‘Yes!’ It’s always an affirmation.”