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Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1908-2004

The Acknowledged Master of the Moment

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page A01

Henri Cartier-Bresson, 95, who revolutionized photography as an art and a reporting tool by capturing what he called "the decisive moment," died Tuesday at his home in the southwestern Luberon region of France. No cause of death was provided.

Whether taking pictures of French resistance fighters and Gestapo informers during World War II, the death of Gandhi, a grizzled eunuch during the Communist revolution in China or a slew of celebrity shots, he was the epitome of the photographer who was at the right place at the right time -- all the time.

Portraits: Images of the legendary photographer's work.
TÍte Š TÍte: Images from the 1999-2000 National Portrait Gallery exhibit.
Video: Cartier-Bresson, master of the "decisive moment," dies.
Appreciation: Photography columnist Frank Van Riper mourns the loss of a legend.

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"In photography, you've got to be quick, quick, quick, quick," he once said. "Like an animal and a prey."

His images, mostly taken with his ever-present 35mm Leica, were alive with playful shadows and rich geometric patterns based on his early interest in surrealism. He called himself a painter at heart, and the sheer beauty of his shots was heightened by the fact he never posed or planned them or later cropped them in any way. Each caught the drama, wit or joy of the immediate, or "decisive," moment.

With a productivity matched by the haunting grandeur of his pictures, Cartier-Bresson was a founder of Magnum Photos, a co-operative photojournalism agency based in New York and Paris; was the subject, in 1954, of the Louvre's first exhibit of photography; had exhibits at all the world's major galleries; and compiled his work in acclaimed books that showcased his worldwide travels.

"No photographer alive has a more secure position in the history of art than Henri Cartier-Bresson -- aesthete, man of action, artist and reporter," Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in 1981.

During his career, Cartier-Bresson also worked as a filmmaker. He was assistant director to director Jean Renoir, son of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in the mid-1930s, and later directed his own documentary, in 1945, about weary French refugees returning to their homeland after World War II.

Cartier-Bresson, thin, wiry and slightly aloof, was long regarded as one of the art world's most unassuming personalities. He disliked self-aggrandizing publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

Likewise, he never used his camera to intrude on moments he considered too private for others. That contributed to winning cooperation from such people as William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, each captured in rare moments of unguardedness.

Like his admirer Diane Arbus, he spent considerable time with his camera subjects before finding just the right moment to take the best shot.

He dismissed those applying the term "art" to his pictures. They were just gut reactions to moments he happened on.

"Bow, arrow, goal and ego melt into one another," he once said. "As soon as I take a bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and ridiculously simple."

Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup, in the Seine et Marne region near Paris, to wealthy parents -- a housewife and a textile manufacturer who liked to sketch in his spare time.

"Strongly appalled" by working for the family business, he found himself turning away from schoolwork in favor of drawing. He studied painting with his uncle as well as the cubist André Lhot and society portraitist Jacques Emile Blanche.

He fell into a circle of friends that included surrealist artists who advocated linking the subconscious and the immediate to their work.

While fulfilling his compulsory Army service, he started shooting pictures in his spare time. He called his work on the Brownie box camera "a quick way of drawing intuitively."

After reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," he left for Africa to hunt game but then fell ill. Convalescing in the Ivory Coast, he was inspired to start shooting pictures after seeing Martin Munkacsi's photo "Black Boys on the Shore of Lake Tanganyika," showing African youths delighting in the water.

Cartier-Bresson returned to France determined to make his career with a camera instead of a palette.

In 1932, he switched to a plain Leica camera that he would use for the rest of his life. He traveled the world, taking photos that immediately received positive attention for their sensuousness and vivacity, from street scenes to lovers in embrace.

He exhibited his work at New York's Julien Levy Gallery (where he shared display space with Walker Evans). While in New York, he met photographer Paul Strand, who did cinematographic work on the Depression-era documentary "The Plow That Broke the Plains."

That fed into Cartier-Bresson's budding interest in film, and upon his return to France he began working for Jean Renoir.

He was assistant director to Renoir on his masterpieces "A Day in the Country" (1936) and "The Rules of the Games" (1939), and made his own documentary about medics in the Spanish Civil War.

In the late 1930s, he also worked for a communist newspaper to support his new wife, Javanese dancer Ratna Mohini. They later divorced, and in 1970 he married photographer Martine Franck, who survives him, along with their daughter.

At the newspaper Ce Soir, he met photojournalists Robert Capa and David Seymour (called "Chim"), with whom he founded Magnum in 1947 with photographer George Rodger.

During World War II, Cartier-Bresson served in the photo unit of the French army. Captured by the enemy, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He escaped on his third try and found his way back to France, where he joined a resistance group that helped escaped POWs.

He continued his photography throughout the war, and by the time of the armistice, he had been asked by American forces to make a documentary about returning refugees. The film, released in the United States in 1947, spurred a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

Using some family money, he also helped start Magnum, which became one of the largest photo agencies in the world. He was its president from 1956 to 1966.

He once credited Capa, the war photographer and Magnum partner, as a key influence in his development: "Capa said to me: 'Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don't fidget. Get moving!' This advice enlarged my field of vision."

The Magnum team divided the world into a few quadrants, with Cartier-Bresson taking India and the Far East. He helped cover the assassination of Gandhi.

He further enhanced his reputation with his 1952 book "The Decisive Moment."

His work on the communist paper in the 1930s helped facilitate his entry to the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s, making him one of the select Western photographers allowed in. The result was two books, "The People of Moscow" (1955) and "China in Transition" (1956).

His other books include "The Europeans" (1955) and "The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson" (1968).

The notion of the decisive moment had its detractors, who said it amounted to snapping scenes quickly and slapping a fancy label on it. But Cartier-Bresson, who late in life returned to painting, argued that his photographic work required an essential intuitive, creative impulse.

"Photography is not like painting," he told The Washington Post in 1957. "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," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company