Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Decisive Moment of documentary photography

Cartier-Bresson was undoubtedly one of the most lucid and talented 20th-century photographers, whose images will always remain in the historic collective memory.

In 1946 the MoMA of New York organized a posthumous exhibition on Henri Cartier-Bresson: its curators, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, believed he had died during World War II; however, the French photographer had actually managed to survive, fleeing from the Nazi prison camp where he had been locked up.

Scrapbook album

Upon learning about the exhibition, Cartier-Bresson decided to fly to the United States. He arrived at the MoMA carrying a selection of 375 photographs he had previously printed and arranged in a scrapbook, namely a big album, which he had bought on his arrival in New York City. It was precisely from this photographic anthology that the exhibition Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson came to life, which was inaugurated in 1947.

The debut

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie in 1908. At a young age, he devoted himself to painting and attended the circle of the French Surrealists. He felt he needed to start photographing only in 1931, after returning from a trip to the Ivory Coast and admiring an image by the Hungarian Martin Munkacsi, which had been published in the magazine Photographie. He bought a Leica 35 mm, which then he defined as “the extension of my eye”; therefore, he left for a journey around the world, thus beginning to document and immortalize the social and political upheavals of his time. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, canteen for workers building the Hotel Metropol, Soviet Union, Moscow, Russia, 1954 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos 

The Decisive Moment

In 1936, the photographer was sent to Spain by the Paris-Soir to document the civil war. Driven by the need to have an active role in the political fervor of those years, and confident in his ability to catch what he defined “the Decisive Moment” for shooting and imprinting the real meaning of an event on film, from that moment on Henri Cartier-Bresson devoted himself almost entirely to documentary photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a group of children play amongst rubble, Spain, Andalucia, Seville, 1933 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos 

“The Eye of the Century”

Along with his Leica, the photographer witnessed the most significant events of the 20th-century: the beginning of the Cold War in USSR, the last days of life of Mahatma Gandhi, the foundation of Mao’s “People’s Republic of China” and, above all World War II, which he lived personally. In fact, Cartier-Bresson had enlisted in the French army Film and Photographic Unit, and in June 1940 he was arrested by the Germans and locked up in a prison camp, where he was compelled to hard labor. He managed to flee three years later, hiding for some time in France. 

Magnum Photos

In the same years, other great photographers documented the tragedies of war in Europe, including the Hungarian Robert Capa, the Polish David Seymour, and the English George Rodger. Cartier-Bresson met them at the restaurant of the MoMA on May 22, 1947: it was from this meeting that the Magnum Photos came to life. It is one of the greatest photographic agencies in the world still today, owing its name to the famous champagne bottle which the four reporters toasted with.

Collective memory

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a purist of photography. His images, printed only in black and white, were the result of his ability to catch the Decisive Moment of events although they always followed a meticulous compositional scheme. Recently, he was sometimes criticized precisely because of the excessive accuracy with which he composed his images; nonetheless, Cartier-Bresson was undoubtedly one of the most lucid and talented 20th-century photographers, whose images will always remain in the historic collective memory.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a couple sleeping on a train, Romania, 1975 © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos