Born in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, France, Henri Cartier-Bresson developed early on a strong fascination for painting, with a particular interest in Surrealism. In 1932, after spending a year in the Ivory Coast, Cartier-Bresson discovered the Leica, his camera of choice ever since, and began a lifelong passion for photography.
In 1933, he had his first exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. His photographs were subsequently shown at the Ateneo club in Madrid, Spain. He pursued his photographic career in Eastern Europe and Mexico, and then became interested in movie-making. He was the assistant of Jean Renoir in 1936, and later directed a documentary on the hospitals of Republican Spain, Victoire de la Vie (Return to Life).
Taken prisoner of war in 1940, he escaped on his third attempt in 1943. He also worked during this period for Editions Braun, making portraits of artists such as Matisse, Rouault, Braque, Bonnard and Claudel. In 1944, he photographed the Liberation of Paris with a group of professional journalists before filming the documentary Le Retour (The Return) in 1945. Then, he spent a year in the United States putting together a “posthumous” exhibition that was initiated by curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who thought he had passed away during the war. The show opened in April 1947.
During his show at the MoMA, he founded Magnum Photos with Robert Capa, George Rodger, David “Chim” Seymour and William Vandivert, then spent three years travelling in the East. He was in India when Mahatma Gandhi was murdered, in Indonesia during its independence and, in 1949, in China during the last six months of the Kuomintang and the first six months of the People’s Republic of China. In 1952, he returned to Europe where he published his first book, Images à la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment) and, in 1954, was the first foreign photographer admitted into the USSR. Cartier-Bresson subsequently traveled to Cuba, Mexico, Canada, the United States and Japan among other countries. In 1968, he began to curtail his photographic activities, preferring to concentrate on drawing and painting. Cartier-Bresson was the recipient of an extraordinary number of prizes, awards and honorary doctorates. A great number of books have been dedicated to his work, which is also represented in the collections of all major institutions throughout the world.
As he explained, “For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder.
This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.”
In 2003, he created the Foundation HCB in Paris with his wife and daughter. He passed away in Céreste, in the southeast of France on August 3, 2004, a few weeks short of his ninety-sixth birthday.