There’s no denying that 35mm film is back. Every tourist destination is adorned with at least one or two film enthusiasts toting a Canon AE 1. In celebration of the resurgence of film photography, today’s post is about the great and fascinating photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Cartier-Bresson grew up with wealthy parents and studied for a year at Cambridge before being conscripted into the army in 1930. He didn’t make it very far before being put under house arrest for hunting without a license. During this time period a friend gave him his first camera.
He loved to read and after discovering Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness he decided to go to the Ivory Coast, which was colonized by France at the time. He made a living by hunting and selling game to local villagers.
When he returned to France after narrowly escaping a serious illness, he began to vigorously pursue candid photography, or street photography. A small Leica camera allowed him to be discreet, and capture people in their more natural moments. This was revolutionary in a time when most portraits were stiff and unnatural. Cartier-Bresson explained “I suddenly understood that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.”
He married a dancer from Java and they lived in a cramped apartment where he set up a dark room in the bathroom. He worked on films with the famous director Jean Renoir and took photographs for a French communist paper.
Cartier-Bresson spent most of World War Two in a prisoner of war camp. On his third escape attempt he was successful and joined the underground resistance. He secretly photographed France under German occupation and later made a film about people returning home after its liberation.
After the war, he worked with Robert Capa and several other photographers to form Magnum photos, a global photography cooperative. Cartier-Bresson was one of the first people granted access to photograph the Soviet Union.
He radically transformed photography and shaped the ideology that still dominates photojournalism today. His book, “The Decisive Moment” emphasized that the photographer must be ready for the right moment, and if it is missed there is no recreating it.
Cartier-Bresson’s photographs bring us glimpses of times and places now long gone and remain a priceless way of retelling our history.