Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) was a French photographer known as a master of the candid shot, and who made famous the term “the decisive moment” which he used as a title for his first book published in 1952. Henri Cartier-Bresson was born into a wealthy family and was the oldest of five children. Because of his financial freedom, he was able to freely pursue his love of photography. Cartier-Bresson also studied art and learned composition and form and became interested in Surrrealism. From 1928-29, he studied at the University of Cambridge where he learned English and later went to Africa where he said that hunting had influenced his photography. In 1935, he traveled to the US where he exhibited his work at the Julien Levy Gallery. In 1936, he became involved in film making and even acted in Partie de Compagne. Cartier-Bresson’s first photojournalist photos were of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth published in 1937. With the imminent beginning of WWII, Cartier-Bresson enlisted in the French army’s Film and Photo unit. He was captured by the Germans in 1940 and spent over 2 years in a prison-of-war camp from which he managed to escape on his third try. After returning to France, he joined the underground and documented the occupation and then liberation of France.
In 1947, Cartier-Bresson and several other well-known photographers founded Magnum Photos. The group shared photo assignments that took them all over the world.
He married Magnum photographer Martine Franck who was thirty years younger in 1970 and had a daughter, Mélanie, in May 1972.
Soon after his marriage, Cartier-Bresson retired from photography, and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait. Instead, he turned to painting and drawing.
Cartier-Bresson nearly always used a Leica 35 mm rangefinder camera fitted with a normal 50mm lens, or occasionally a wide-angle lens for landscapes and he never used a flash. Most of his photos are in black and white, as he saw color as technically inferior and aesthetically limited.
He told the Washington Post in 1957, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Quite a few of his photographs include cats whom he respected for their independent nature. He is quoted as saying, “I’m an anarchist, yes. Because I’m alive. Life is a provocation…. I’m against people in power and what that imposes upon them. Anglo-Saxons have to learn what anarchism is. For them, it’s violence. A cat knows what anarchy is. Ask a cat. A cat understands. They’re against discipline and authority. A dog is trained to obey. Cats can’t be. Cats bring on chaos.”
Cartier-Bresson died in Provence, France on August 3, 2004, aged 95. He was buried in the local cemetery and was survived by his wife, Martine Franck and daughter, Mélanie.
Many of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs were of famous artists, writers and musicians with their cats.