Henri Cartier-Bresson

Born 1908. Died 2004.
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Henri Cartier-Bresson Biography

In his seminal 1952 monograph, The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote, “To take a photograph means to recognize, simultaneously and within a fraction of a second, both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.” Cartier-Bresson’s keen eye for such “decisive moments” – both on the grand scale of international politics and in the most ordinary moments of everyday life – have made him one of the most influential and original figures in the history of photography. A pioneer in the realms of photojournalism, street photography and portraiture, Cartier-Bresson’s iconic black and whites capture the drama, mystery and poetry of 20th century life with inimitable specificity and immediacy.

Born in Chanteloup, France, in 1908, Cartier-Bresson initially studied under the Cubist painter André Lhote before taking up photography in 1931. His first photographs were published the following year in Arts et Metiers Graphiques. In the mid-1930’s, Cartier-Bresson became interested in cinematography, studying with Paul Strand in New York and later assisting renowned French film director Jean Renoir with the 1936 short Partie de Campaign. In 1940, Cartier-Bresson was drafted into the film and photo unit of the French Army, and was shortly thereafter taken prisoner by German forces. Imprisoned for three years, Cartier-Bresson eventually escaped and began working for the French resistance, documenting the Nazi occupation of France and its liberation in 1945.

In 1947, Cartier-Bresson was honored with his first museum show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. That same year, along with Robert Capa and others, he cofounded Magnum photo agency, a pioneering cooperative allowing photojournalists to retain control of their work. Cartier-Bresson spent much of the next twenty years traveling and photographing around the world, capturing some of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century: the rise of Communism in China, independence in India and Indonesia, the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death and America’s post-War boom, among others. Cartier-Bresson left Magnum in 1966 and retired from photography altogether in the 1970s to devote himself to drawing and painting. He died in 2004 in Céreste, France, at the age of 95.

Cartier-Bresson was honored with numerous awards throughout his career, including four Overseas Press Club of America Awards (1948, 1954, 1960, 1964), the Prix de la Société Française de Photographie (1959), Grand Prix National de la Photographie (1981) and the Hasselblad Award (1982). He has been the subject of numerous important museum exhibitions, including a major traveling retrospective organized by MoMA in 2010. Today, his work is collected by the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art and International Center of Photography, all in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Menil Collection, Houston, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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