Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Magic Eye

By Marable, Darwin | The World and I, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Magic Eye


Marable, Darwin, The World and I


Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is a legendary figure in photography, well known for his ability to capture the "decisive moment" through the lens of his Leica 35 mm camera. Along with Dr. Erich Salomon and Alfred Eisenstaedt, he was a pioneer in available light photojournalism. In 1955 Cartier-Bresson was the first photographer to exhibit in the Louvre. Considered to be the father of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson was also unique in that he bridged the world of art and photojournalism.

The first major retrospective exhibition since his death consists of an overwhelming 300 prints, seventy-five percent of which are on loan from the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris. "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" originated at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 11-June 28, 2010, was on exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago, July 24-October 3, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 30-January 30, 2011, and continues on exhibition at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta from February 16 to May 15.

Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloupe-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, near Paris, the oldest of five children. However, he grew up in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Paris near Parc Monceau. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer who provided a comfortable life for his family. Cartier-Bresson first attended Ecole Fenelon, a Catholic school that prepared students for the Lycee Condorcet, from which he was graduated.

Founded in 1803, Lycee Condorcet's graduates include Felix Nadar, Marcel Proust, and Henri Bergson. Stephane Mallarme and Jean Paul Sartre were among its former faculty. After graduation, he attended Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge for a brief period studying English literature, but spent most of his time painting.

As a child, Cartier-Bresson acquired an early love of oil painting through his uncle, Louis, who was a gifted painter. At the age of 19, he entered a private art school and the Lhote Academy where he studied with Andre Lhote, the Cubist painter, sculptor and art critic. Lhote deepened his appreciation of both classical and modern painting--and provided him with visual skills and a love of geometry that would contribute to his photography. During his youth Cartier-Bresson also took snapshots with a Box Brownie and a 3 X 4 inch view camera. His visual education was coalescing.

Cartier-Bresson's turning point was his introduction to Andre Breton and Surrealism which dominated Paris from 1924 through the 1930's. Cartier-Bresson began meeting the Surrealists in 1928 at the Cafe Cyrano in Place Blanche through the poet, Rene Crevel. He was attracted to their interest in the unconscious mind, dreams, chance, the juxtaposition of different realities, revolt and life in the street. Art was a means that they used to express a higher reality, a sur-reality. Surrealism was a way of life!

Whether the photograph was a document or experimental mattered little to the Surrealists as all was grist for the mill. Cartier-Bresson, the budding photographer, was forming a vision. In his book, The Mind's Eye, he wrote "... I owe an allegiance to Surrealism, because it taught me to let the photographic lens look into the rubble of the unconscious and of chance."

In 1931, at age 23 years, Cartier-Bresson traveled to the Ivory Coast in French colonial Africa where he shot and sold game to the local villagers. He also photographed with a miniature 35 mm camera made by the French firm Krauss. However, he returned to France with only seven salvaged photographs as the tropics were not kind to photographs. He resumed his relationships with the Surrealists and, inspired by a photograph of the Hungarian photographer, Martin Munkacsi, decided to quit painting for photography. He purchased a Leica camera with 50 mm lens, which became his camera of choice for the rest of his life, painted all the shiny parts black to remain anonymous, and began photographing life in the streets. …

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