He was the French photographer turned Surrealist painter whose oeuvre includes his take on most of the 20th century’s key moments.

But, say the curators behind the retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there was more to Henri Cartier-Bresson than spectacular photography.

Instead, his lengthy career encompassed several periods of artistic development, the foundation of the world’s first photo agency and some of the first photojournalism ever produced.


For Cartier-Bresson, born in 1908, his early years were idyllic ones. The eldest of five brothers born to wealthy parents in Paris, his first attempts at photography were encouraged and abetted by his family who bought him a Box Brownie camera.

He was also taught painting by his uncle Louis, although, sadly, the painting lessons were cut short when Louis was killed fighting for France during World War I.

The post-war world saw Cartier-Bresson continue to pursue his artistic ambitions, entering a private art school and the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote.

Americana: Martin Luther King pictured at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

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The dying days of a regime: This photo, taken in Shanghai in 1949, shows a queue to exchange worthless paper money for gold.
a man asleep in a Brooklyn cafe in 1947.

Under Lhote’s tutelage, Cartier-Bresson enjoyed a classical French art education but fed up with Lhote’s rules, left for a stint at Cambridge University in 1928 where he learned to speak English, before in 1930, leaving the UK to complete his military service at Le Bourget.

During his military service, he met Caresse Crosby, the wife of hedonistic American publisher, Harry Crosby.

Drawn into their decadent social circle, he swiftly began an intense affair with Caresse and was heartbroken when the relationship ended two years later.

Desperate to get away, he booked a one-way trip to the then French colony, Côte d’Ivoire, where he survived by shooting game and selling it to locals. Although the period saw Cartier-Bresson narrowly escape death after contracting blackwater fever, it also marked the beginning of his photographic career – all thanks to his faithful Box Brownie.

Glamorous: Cartier-Bresson also worked with magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, taking this glamorous shot of model Evelyn Tripp in Las Vegas in 1958

On his return to France in late 1931, the budding photographer purchased himself a more advanced Leica camera and set about building a name for himself.

His spontaneous style, capturing moments as they happened and the ordinary people who starred in them, swiftly brought him critical acclaim, although as a surrealist photographer rather than a photojournalist.

That came later, when in 1937 when he covered the coronation of George VI and the adoring crowds that greeted the new monarch on the streets of London.

His reputation for capturing pivotal moments through the eyes of ordinary people was bolstered during Word War II, thanks to his work with the French Army’s film and photography unit, although he was later captured by the Nazis during the Battle of France.

Later, after escaping, he joined the Resistance, documenting the activities of agents through photography and film.

After the war, he joined Robert Capa and three others to found Magnum Photographs, the world’s first photographic agency, and travelled the world on behalf of clients ranging from Vogue to Time magazines.

Highlights included his coverage of the final days of the Kuomingtang administration in China before the country fell to Mao’s communists, and the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi.

His later work, much of which was devoted to portraiture and landscape, also included a rare glimpse inside what was then the Soviet Union, as well as portraits of such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe and Albert Camus.

Although Cartier-Bresson retired in the 1970s, he continued to work but in paint instead of on film. He died in 2004, aged 95, in the small and pretty Alpine village of Montjustin – a quiet end to a life lived vividly.

source: daily mail

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