Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) tirelessly worked as a prolific photojournalist from the 1930s up until his death in 2004. A hand-held Leica camera accompanied the young artist as he wandered Paris; the young artist helped pioneer the then-burgeoning street photography movement. Cartier-Bresson’s work may best be crystallized in his image, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932), which features a man in suspended mid-air as he sails over a placid puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station; he had a knack for catching impossibly quick moments as they unfolded around him. Cartier-Bresson also co-founded the Magnum Photos cooperative in 1947 alongside contemporaries Robert Capa, George Rodger,  David Chim Seymour and William Vandivert. He has shot all over the world, including in China during the revolution, the Soviet Union after Stalin’s passing and India as it gained independence.

The young artist developed and fostered a strong passion for painting early in life, especially in the Surrealism movement. The oldest of five children, he originally planned to be an artist, studying in his 20s under painter André Lhote, who specialized in a late-Cubist style. He started shooting with a Brownie, after spending a year hunting for antelope and boar in the Ivory Coast in 1931. His focus moved forward firmly fixed on photography, primarily with his favorite camera, a 35mm Leica. Cartier-Bresson spent most of World War II as a prisoner of war, eventually escaping on his third try in 1943 from the Germans who originally imprisoned him. In 1944, he participated in a French underground photographic unit to record the German occupation and retreat. Two years later, Cartier-Bresson created Le Retour, a film for the U.S. Office of War Information to illustrate French P.O.W.s’ releases. The documentary features footage from concentration camps after liberation. Growing up good looking, sophisticated and worldly, Cartier-Bresson had no problem making famous friends like Jacqueline Kennedy, Truman Capote and Coco Chanel, among others—all of whom sat for portraits for him. He was widely considered well-connected and a master networker.

In general, Cartier-Bresson bristled from magazine and newspapers, dismissing both as impermanent. Despite those sentiments, the photographer is credited as the father of photojournalism, publishing images frequently with LIFE magazine. In 1966, he quit Magnum to return to painting and drawing.

Cartier-Bresson enjoyed his first museum show at MoMA in 1947. 63 years later, the museum displayed a posthumous retrospective from the artist, including 300 photos that span his groundbreaking career. The exhibition traveled between the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the High Museum of Art. Cartier-Bresson has had work shown at International Center of Photography, National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, to name a few.