Transition: An Eye without an Equal; Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004

Article excerpt

Byline: Dana Thomas

When Henri Cartier-Bresson was a young photographer in Paris in the 1930s, the artist Max Jacob took him to see a psychic. She recounted very precisely the path his life would take, to his death. As the years went on, each prediction came true: he had an unhappy marriage to a woman who was "not white" (she was Javanese), followed by a happier one to a "much younger" woman--the photographer Martine Franck. So when people asked him if he feared being killed on assignment or dying of some dreadful disease contracted in a far-flung land he photographed for Life or Paris-Match, he'd say, "No. I know when and how I am going to die, and it's not now." But he never said when it might be. In fact, it was last week at his home in Provence, at the age of 95.

As Pablo Picasso was to art and Ernest Hemingway to literature, Cartier-Bresson was to photography. With his 35mm Leica, he created a new direction in his medium: photojournalism as we know it today. His work was about stark composition, clarity, movement and emotion--what he called, in a 1952 essay, capturing "the decisive moment." "Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you," he told The Washington Post in 1957, "and you must know with intuition when to click the camera."

Cartier-Bresson's perfect decisive moments were countless, and priceless: a man leaping over a puddle at the Gare Saint-Lazare, his shadow reflected on the still water; four women in the Himalayas reaching up to the stormy clouds; a man walking beneath billboards in Madrid; two German couples picnicking on the--banks of the Marne. Though Cartier-Bresson's pictures depict particular eras--pre- and postwar Europe, the Soviet Union, Maoist China--the stories they tell are timeless, classics that everyone anywhere can understand, and love.

Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 outside Paris to a bourgeois family in the textile business. As a young man he studied painting with Andre Lhote, an early Cubist, and hung out with the surrealists in Montmartre; both made a lifelong impression on him. In 1931 Cartier-Bresson got his first Leica, and began to travel and shoot. …