No photographer alive has a more secure position in the history of art than Henri Cartier-Bresson -- esthete, man of action, artist and reporter -- whose distilled retrospective goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery. We see in every image the three interacting masteries that have, for half a century, lent grandeur to his art.

The first is temporal. No photographer has ever bee more at ease in the flow of time, or faster on the trigger. A leaping figure floats in air, sun glints from a spectacle -- and we know that in the instant before he shot these pictures he managed to foresee what was about to happen. "In photography," he's said, "you've got to be quick, quick, quick. Like an animal and a prey."

But he is also slow. Cartier-Bresson's alacrity is not more awesome than his patience. A magazine assigned him once to photography the architect Louis Kahn. For this job Cartier-Bresson did not dart, he floated. He did himself -- for days -- behind a narrow column among the many drafting boards in Kahn's busy office. "I used to go around the room while he was waiting for me to stop at a certain board," the architect recalled. "And I did stop, too, because the board was occupied by a beautiful Chinese girl, that's why. I went over to the board and I started to draw, and I heard the camera go clickclickclick. He was ready, you see; he was waiting for the very moment, but he was setting the stage for it."

Cartier's second mastery is geometrical. His photographs are full of visual rhymes. Look, for instance at the picture he took one rainy day in 1932 behind the Gare Saint-Lazare. It is a picture dense with echoes. The man leaping in air is twinned with his reflection. The posters in the background -- of a dancer in midair -- and the foreground -- barrel-hoops -- are as strangely paired.

"How did he catch so quickly the analogy between the running man and the poster," writes Yves Bonnefoy, a friend of the artist. "How, from so many fugitive elements, could be compose a sense as perfect in its details as it is mysterious in its essence?How can one know before seeing and decide before knowing?"

As if in obedience to some psychic choreography, the shapes in Cartier-Bresson's photographs dance with one another. Two pigs stand up in unison in a picture shot in Holland in 1953. Alberto Giacometti strides across a gallery as if in imitation of the statue by his aide. This show is full of perfect puns. As William Faulkner stretches, the terrier at his feet performs the same gesture. "The greatest joy for me is geometry," says Cartier-Bresson.

His third mastery is kindness -- though his long career has been as full of action, danger and violence as Andre Malraux's.

He photographed the French Resistance during World War II. He was captured by the Germans and was forced to spend three years in a prisoner-of-war camp from which, on his third try, he finally escaped. (The artist, ever since, has valued anonymity. He will not pose for portraits; his Leica's chrome is blackened so that no sudden glint will catch a subject's eye.) In 1949, he covered the Chinese Revolution. When Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Cartier-Bresson was present. For years he made his living as a photojournalist, but his most newsy photographs are never headline-harsh. Look, for instance, at his picture of a "Gestapo informer recognized by a woman she has denounced, deportation camp, Dessau, Germany, 1945." One would expect Cartier-Bresson's sympathies to be immediately apparent. But the informer, with her fist clenched, is not read as the enemy. It is the rage of her attacker that makes the viewer cringe. Cartier-Bresson is no propagandist. An endless politesse, a sympathy -- for his subjects, and also for the viewer -- permeates his art.

How many thousand photographs he's made since 1932 is anybody's guess. Most have been discarded. The 156 included in this show, all chosen by the artist, are those for which Cartier-Bresson hopes to be remembered. Their installation here is not chronological. A picture from the '70s might hang without discomfort beside one made 40 years before.

In its discipline, it graciousness -- and above all in its artlessness -- he work of Cartier-Bresson seems almost Oriental. Writer Richard Whelan notes that Cartier-Bresson regards Eugen Herrigel's "Zen in the Art of Archery" as "one of the best photography manuals ever written": "Bow, arrow, goal and ego melt into one another . . . As soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and ridiculously simple." When Cartier-Bresson insists that photography "doesn't take any brains," the meaning is the same.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is now 73. Though he started as a painter, and nowadays prefers drawing to photography, he has alwayhs been an artist. He links Atget to Robert Frank. Though Cartier-Bresson has called himself a "surrealist" photographer, that label does not fit. He's a spiritual photographer.

His exhibit at the Corcoran was organized in New York in 1979 for the International Center of Photography. Its tour is sponsored by the American Express Foundation. It will remain at the Corcoran through May 17.