Compelled to Witness: The Social Realism of Henri Cartier-Bresson

By Cookman, Claude | Journalism History, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Compelled to Witness: The Social Realism of Henri Cartier-Bresson


Cookman, Claude, Journalism History


Henri Cartier-Bresson's contribution to modern photography, and by extension to twentieth-century vision, is without dispute. Among twentieth-century photographers, he ranks as one of the best known and most influential. Appreciated by lay audiences for his portrayal of the human condition, by the art world for his consummate formalism, by historians for his advancement of the photographic medium, and by photographers for his incomparable personal style, he is a giant in modern photography.

In the early 1930s when purist photography had gained ascendancy over the previously dominant international movement of Pictorialism, CartierBresson created a new aesthetic which would eclipse both styles. Encapsulated in the term "the decisive moment," it comprised two elements: First, the photograph must contain significant content. Most often, in his pictures, it has been the human condition. Second, this content must be arranged in a rigorous composition. Form, line, texture, tonality, contrast, and geometric proportions carry an importance equal to, but also inextricable from, the content. For Cartier-Bresson, decisive-moment photography is "the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms."1

During the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson created this mode of photographic expression and elevated it to a level unmatched by countless would-be imitators. Several factors contributed to his achievement. Among them were his discovery of the Leica,2 which he called "the extension of my eye"; his artistic education with the Cubist painter Andro Lhote; his zest for life, travel, and rebellion, sparked by his association with Andre Breton's Surrealist movement and his avid reading of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Arthur Rimbaud, Romain Rolland, and others; and his acute physical reflexes. Drawing on these and other resources, he demonstrated to the world the potential of the 35mm camera to make pictures remarkable for their revelatory content and formal excellence. From the early 1930s to the mid 1970s, when he stopped actively photographing, he made hundreds of images so palpable that they pull the viewer into their space; images so visually rich that the viewer can look at them again and again, finding fresh rewards each time; images that critics have called magical, evocative, marvelous. In so doing, he earned a prominent place in the history of photography.

He produced the great majority of these images while engaged in magazine and book photojournalism. By his own account he felt compelled to witness the events and people of his world and to communicate what he witnessed to the mass audiences of illustrated magazines. His credits include such news situations as the liberation of Paris, the funeral of Mohandas Gandhi, the fall of Beijing to Mao Tse-tung's forces, and the May 1968 rebellion by French students and workers. He explored numerous countries and cultures including China, Cuba, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United States.3 In 1954, during the thaw that followed the death of Josef Stalin, he became the first western photojournalist allowed to work in the Soviet Union in seven years. The resulting reportage was published in more than a dozen magazines and earned Cartier-Bresson his second of three Overseas Press Club Awards for best still photographs from abroad.

His portraiture alone would constitute a distinguished career. He photographed for publication many of the notable figures of this century.4 Many of his portraits have become the iconic images of their subjects. From 1933 to 1974, Cartier-Bresson's credit line appeared on more than 475 picture stories or single photographs in Der Stern, Du, Epoca, Harper's Bazaar, Holiday, Life, Look, Paris Match, Picture Post, Regards, Vogue, Vu, and other illustrated magazines and newspapers.5

Now, almost twenty-five years after he stopped actively photographing, CartierBresson's career as a photojournalist is in danger of being minimized or denied by writers in the art world who want to position his work as art instead of photojournalism. …

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