Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is known as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century with his ideas that break the mold and the techniques he uses; chooses the subject of most of his works from the usual or even ordinary events around us and aims to emphasize the meanings of these events in the universal context.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founders of the legendary Magnum Photos photography agency, prefers to photograph social events, cultural developments, and sociological themes, contrary to the widespread tendency of his time towards nature photography. Let’s take a closer look at the life and work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, known as the “master hunter of the absolute moment”.
Who is Henri Cartier-Bresson?
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was born to a relatively wealthy family in Paris on August 22, 1908, was taking photos of the holiday destinations he went to with his Box Brownie camera even in his childhood. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who first went to a Catholic school, École Fénelon, studied music, then started working on painting with his uncle, who was a very successful and talented painter.
However, painting education was left unfinished after the death of his uncle, who participated in the First World War, during this period. Continuing his interest in painting, Henri Cartier-Bresson entered the Lhote Academy of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote in 1927. While continuing his education here, he was reading from names such as Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Hegel, Engels, and Marx.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s interest in modern art combined with his admiration for the works of Renaissance artists after André Lhote took his students to Paris to study classical artists and modern art. The works of names such as Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Jan van Eyck and Uccello were for him the quality of “cameraless photography”.
Tendency to Surrealism
During his education at the Lhote Academy, Henri Cartier-Bresson had not adopted and internalized Lhote’s very rule-oriented approach to art. But later, this prescriptive approach helped Henri Cartier-Bresson to identify the artistic form and composition errors in photography and find solutions.
By the 1920s, schools of photographic realism began to emerge across Europe, each with a different idea of how a photograph should be taken. With the manifesto published by André Breton on the surrealism movement in 1924, the acceleration of the movement acted as a catalyst for Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s tendency towards surrealism.
Towards the end of 1931, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose relationship with the surrealists further developed, took the iconic Leica camera that would be with him for many years. He is also known to call the Leica camera “an extension of my eye”. With his very small Leica camera, he created a chance to remain anonymous and act spontaneously in crowds.
In this way, he was able to capture the natural states of the people he chose as the subject of his photographs. The photographs he took with his Leica camera were displayed at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932 and later at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. When we came to 1934, his works were included in an exhibition in Mexico, which also included works by Manuel Álvarez Bravo.
Henri Cartier-Bresson & Photography Technique
I think one of the most interesting details about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic technique is that he never used flash. He explains it with these words: “Using a flash is rudely like coming to a concert with a gun in your hand.” At the same time, he has never worked in color, except for a few works throughout his entire artistic career.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who always takes black and white photographs, has the following words on this subject: “I find emotion only in black and white. The color look is actually an incomplete look. Color photography only makes merchants and magazines happy.” I should also mention that he did not edit any of his photos by cutting them.
Since he works with great care and effort for all his photographs, there are no unnecessary details that should not be in his photographs. It is said that Henri Cartier-Bresson prints all his photographs with the blank and black parts of his negatives to prove this situation.
Le Retour / The Turn
II. With the start of World War II, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was captured by the Nazis while serving in the French Army, tried to escape from the Nazi camps three times and managed to escape in the last attempt in 1943. Due to the war, Leica buried her camera in the ground, and immediately after escaping from the camp, she took it out and continued to photograph what she witnessed. Le Retour, on the other hand, is a 34-minute documentary filmed in 1945 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, documenting the process of returning captives to their countries.
Establishing the Legend of Magnum Photos
After Robert Capa laid the foundations of the idea of establishing an agency, the legendary Magnum Photos photography agency was established in 1947, together with names such as Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour (Chim), and George Rodger.
It is also known that Henri Cartier-Bresson went to Europe, India, Russia, and China for photo interviews for Magnum Photos. The founding vision of Magnum Photos is; it was about witnessing events that affected the world, wherever they were, and coping with the pressures of some strict sanctions and rules that restricted photographers.
In this direction, they earned a lot of income by selling the frames taken during the war to the newspapers. Today, Magnum Photos is an internationally prestigious photography agency with offices in cities such as New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo, which hosts many valuable photographers.
Images à la sauvette / Decisive Moment
Henri Cartier-Bresson; went to places that no one thought of when traveling was not easy and common as it is today. As a photojournalist, he was in the right places at the right time, witnessing many wars, social and historical events. Today, we can witness these events through the keen eye of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is a great observer. As I mentioned, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who mostly focuses on social events and socio-cultural issues, told the story of what he witnessed by using a technique called photo essay, just like a researcher puts his observations into writing.
In addition to these, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who penned the Decision Memoir in 1952, the cover of which was drawn by Henri Matisse and in which he explained his thoughts on photography, began to be known as the “Eye of the Century”. Henri Cartier-Bresson gained successful momentum in his career with the publication of his book. In addition, during this period, Henri Cartier-Bresson managed to open his first photography exhibition, which bears the same name as his book, at the Louvre Museum.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who captured names such as Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Salvador Dali, and Simone de Beauvoir from the art world and had his name written in gold letters in the art of photography, passed away in 2004. I would like to end my article with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s statement about the power of photography, which reveals his perspective on the art of photography: “This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.”
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