Childhood & Early Life
Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, on August 22, 1908. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, while his mother’s family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy.
Young Henri owned a Box Brownie that he used for taking holiday snapshots. He later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. His parents raised him in traditional French bourgeois fashion.
He attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school. His uncle Louis introduced him to oil painting. The painting lessons were cut short, when his uncle died in World War I.
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Career and Later Life
In 1927, Cartier-Bresson entered Lhote Academy, the studio of Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote in Paris. He studied classical artists and contemporary art. He also studied painting with portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche.
From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied English, art and literature, and became bilingual. He then completed his mandatory service in the French Army, stationed at Le Bourget.
In 1929, his air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without license. American expatriate Harry Crosby persuaded the officer to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody. They spent time taking and printing pictures.
He went to Côte d’Ivoire in French colonial Africa. He survived by shooting and selling game. He took a portable camera. However, only seven photographs survived the tropics.
He returned to France in late 1931, and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. The photographs taken by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi inspired him to take up photography seriously.
He acquired a Leica camera with 50 mm lens in Marseilles. To maintain anonymity to overcome the formal and unnatural behavior of his subjects, he painted its shiny parts with black paint.
He photographed Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Madrid. His first photograph exhibition was at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid.
He met photographers David “Chim” Seymour and Robert Capa, They shared a studio, and Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson. In 1935, he traveled to the US to exhibit his work at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery.
He returned to France, and approached Jean Renoir. He acted in Renoir’s “Partie de champagne” and “La Règle du jeu”. He helped Renoir make a film on the 200 families who ran France.
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In 1937, he covered the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, for the French weekly Regards. He focused on the people lining the London streets alone. His photo credit read “Cartier”.
Between 1937 and 1939, he worked as a photographer for the French Communists’ evening paper, Ce Soir. He was a leftist, but he did not join the French Communist party.
He joined the French Army during World War II as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. In 1940, he was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps.
He tried twice to escape from the prison camp, and was punished by solitary confinement. Successful at the third attempt, he hid on a farm in Touraine, and with false papers traveled to France.
In France, he went underground, aided other escapees, and worked secretly with other photographers to cover the Occupation, and then the Liberation of France. In 1943, he recovered his buried Leica camera.
During the Chinese Civil War in 1949, he covered the Kuomintang’s last six months, and the Maoist People’s Republic’s first six months. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing.
Cartier-Bresson held his first exhibition in France at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre in 1955. He became the first Western photographer to photograph “freely” in the post-war Soviet Union.
Cartier-Bresson withdrew as a principal of Magnum in 1966. He retired from photography, and returned to drawing and painting. He held his first exhibition of drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York.
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Cartier-Bresson’s book, “The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson” was published in 1947. Along with Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger, he founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative picture agency owned by its members.
Magnum’s assignment took him to India and China. He achieved international recognition for his photograph of Gandhi, 15 minutes before he was shot dead and the coverage of Gandhi’s funeral in India in 1948.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published his book “Images à la sauvette”. Its English edition was titled “The Decisive Moment”. It included a portfolio of 126 of his photos. Henri Matisse drew the cover.
Awards & Achievements
Cartier-Bresson won the Overseas Press Club of America Award four times from 1948 to 1964. Other awards during that time include The A.S.M.P. Award, and The Prix de la Société française de photographie.
From 1974 to 2006, he was awarded The Culture Prize, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, Grand Prix National de la Photographie, Hasselblad Award, and Prix Nadar for the photobook Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1929, Cartier-Bresson embraced the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse. He had an intense sexual relationship with her. His affair ended in heartbreak two years after Crosby committed suicide.
In 1937, he married Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. They divorced after 30 years of married life. Three years later, he married Magnum photographer Martine Franck. The couple had a daughter, Mélanie.
In 2003, he created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation with his wife and daughter to preserve and share his legacy.
He died in Montjustin, France, on August 3, 2003, and was buried in the local cemetery.