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The Eye of the Century: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

"To photograph is to put the head, the eye and the heart on the same line of sight"

- Henri Cartier-Bresson

From the late 1920s to the beginning of the 21st century, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has made every effort to respect the principle of life and sight reported in the subtitle-quote here above. Since he began exhibiting and publishing pictures of him, some have tried to define what constituted the unity of this principle. His genius for composition, his intelligence of situations or his ability to grasp them at the right moment, were therefore more often summed up in the notion of "decisive moment".

“If there is no emotion, if there is no shock, if you don't react to sensitivity, you shouldn't take a picture. It's the picture that takes us".

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is how Henri Cartier-Bresson perceived photography. His entire existence has been marked by the quest for the perfect photo, in the right place at the right time. Inspired by the surrealist movement, the native of Chanteloup-en-Brie followed the cubism of André Lhote and the dialectical realism of Jean Renoir to shape his photographer's paw. Cartier-Bresson captured with his Leica the key moments in the history of the 20th century, from the liberation of Paris in 1944 to the Cuban crisis during the Cold War as well as the death of Gandhi. The man still remains famous for his work as a photojournalist, notably under the banner of Magnum Photos, a photographic cooperative that he co-founded, even if his personal works have certainly forged his legend.

“Photography is, for me, a spontaneous impulse coming from an ever attentive eye which captures the moment and its eternity.”

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson became famous for bringing more attention on the progress of photography and the process that led to the amazing pictures rather than just on the end product. In one of his quotes he noted that pictures are not made with just a camera but with the eye, heart, and head as well. He was born in Chanteloup in 1908 and spent most of his youth immersed in the bohemian atmosphere of Paris. As a young man he tried to pursue a career as a painter but without much success. In the 1920s he was very close to the surrealist movement from which he borrowed the interpretation of the details scattered in everyday life.

In 1932, after a trip to the Ivory Coast that made him fall in love with photography, he decided to buy a 35 mm Leica as his own expressive tool. The surrealist photos taken during his travels in Mexico and Europe between 1932 and 1935 made him famous as an art-photographer in New York. Upon his return to France in 1937, he began to devote himself to photojournalism after a period of apprenticeship as a director with Jean Renoir.

During the Second World War Cartier-Bresson joined the French army but was taken prisoner by the Nazis. He remained in a prison camp for thirty-five months during which time he tried several times to escape. He succeeded only the third attempt, though. Once free he joined the ranks of the French Resistance and was then able to document the liberation of Paris in 1944 with his Leica.

In 1947, he founded the historic agency Magnum together with his friends photographers David Seymour, Robert Capa, George Rodger and William Vandivert. From this moment he will begin to travel the world, creating photographic reports that will go down in history. For that reason, Magnum would become the largest photographic agency in the world.

At the peak of his career he published "The decisive moment" in 1953 which is considered a true "Bible" for all reportage photographers. He pursued his career as a photojournalist until his retirement in the 1970s.

1930s, the early works

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Hyères, France 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Behind the Gare Saint Lazare, France 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Quai St.-Bernard, Paris 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Children in Seville, Spain 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Livorno, Italy 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Madrid, Spain, 1933

Henri Cartier-Brsson - George Hoyningen-Huene, 1935

1944 - 1945, the beginning of photojournalism: the liberation of Paris and the end of the WW2

Rue des Martyrs, August 22-25, 1944

Paris, August 24-25, 1944

Rue St. Honoré, August 22-25, 1944

Rue St-Honoré, August 22-25, 1944

German Officers surrender upon the liberation, August 22-25, 1944

At the liberation of prisoners from the deportee’s camp, a woman recognizes an informer of the Gestapo, Dessau, Germany, 1945

1948 - 1950: Gandhi's death in India, the Chinese civil war and the Indonesian independence

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gandhi’s funeral. Delhi, India, 1948. Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi’s cremation, Delhi, India, 1948. Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Crowds wait to pay last respects as Gandhi's funeral, Delhi, India, 1948. Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi’s ashes being transported to the River Ganges to be scattered. Delhi, India. 1948. Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson Crowds gathered at Gandhi's funeral, Delhi, India, 1948. Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson A crowd on the banks of the River Ganges watching the scattering of Gandhi’s ashes. Delhi, India. 1948. Magnum Photos

Gold Rush: at the end of the day, scrambles in front of a bank to buy gold. The last days of Kuomintang, Shanghai, 23 December 1948 (The Guardian)

Near the Forbidden City, a person whose job it is to escort brides in a sedan chair, Beijing, December 1948 (The Guardian)

Early in the morning, in the Forbidden City, 10,000 new recruits have gathered to form a Nationalist regiment, Beijing, December 1948 (The Guardian)

The window display of a brush merchant in the antique dealers’ street, Beijing, December 1948 (The Guardian)

At the entrance to a tavern, Beijing, December 1948 (The Guardian)

A visitor to the Forbidden City, Beijing, December 1948 (The Guardian)

Students dancing during a parade in Shanghai, China 1949

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Parade of the National Army of Indonesia after the Inauguration of Sukarno, Kraton Yogyakarta, 17 December 1949 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sukarno Sworn in as President of the Republik Indonesia Serikat by Dr Kusuma Atmadja, Kraton Yogyakarta, 17 December 1949 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Celebration in Solo's Streets After Transfer Ceremonies, 13 November 1949 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Soldier and Attendant, Solo, One Day Before the Transfer of Power, 11 November 1949 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

“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 oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of the mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brooklyn, New York, 1947

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographer Richard Avedon, Carmel Snow and Marie-Louise Bousquet, Paris, 1951

Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Moscow in 1954

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dublin, Ireland, 1952

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ne Year's Eve, Time Square, New York, 1959

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Arles, France, 1959

Henri Cartier-Bresson –Naples, Italy 1960

Henri Cartier-Bresson, San Francisco, 1960

Henri Cartier-Bresson,1960

Henri Cartier-Bresson Country Club, Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1963

When I was studying French culture at university in Milan, my teacher asked me this question during the exam: What did Bresson leave behind?

Today, after having explored the subject more in depth through this post, I would reply that Bresson has left a desire to renew himself, seeking simplicity, in every photograph. He thought that every photographer looking for something special is completely building his shot instead. His works always convey the desire for simplicity and the beauty in small things.

His subjects never pose. He used to hide his camera and blend in with local to achieve that. Because he got to the conclusion that if the subject knows he is being photographed, he will behave unnaturally. Elementary, Monsieur “L’oeil du Siècle”.

1 comment

1 comentario

Leica Jockey
Leica Jockey
17 mar 2022

That first photo with the pigeons isn't a Bresson photo. It's a Rui Palha photo. Please revise this. Thanks!

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