Fine Art Photography Series
Henri Cartier-Bresson

Biography of French "Street Photographer".

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Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)


Cartier-Bresson's Photography
Other Famous Len-Based Artists


For an explanation of technical
and historical terms, please see:
Art Photography Glossary.

Cartier-Bresson's Photography

One of the greatest photographers of the street, the French camera artist Henri Cartier-Bresson was influenced by the fine arts (Cubism), literature (Surrealism), and philosophy (Zen). Regarded as the father of modern photojournalism - the most dramatic form of fine art photography - he was an early exponent of the 35 mm format, and the acknowledged master of "street photography" around the world. No photographer focused more on the aesthetics of photography than Cartier-Bresson; no other photographer showed such unerring ability at capturing the "decisive moment", that fleeting instant when all the moving elements of a picture are in harmony. Among his most famous works are the surrealist-style photo Behind the Gare St Lazare, Paris (1932, silver print, Museum of Modern Art, New York), and the seminal photobook entitled The Decisive Moment (1952), whose cover was designed by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

See also biographical details of 19th-Century Photographers.


Son of a wealthy family. Father is a textile manufacturer. Interested in art and literature from an early age. Schooling at the Ecole Fenelon and Lycee Condorcet. Takes up painting influenced by Picasso and Braque's Cubism. 1927-1928, trains with Andre Lhote, whom Cartier-Bresson described as his teacher of photography "without a camera." During this time Cartier-Bresson meets with the leading Surrealist artists at the Cafe Cyrano, in the Place Blanche. (The Surrealist approach to photography was based on the contrast between the usual and unusual. It was understood that when an ordinary photograph was uprooted from its normal context, it could contain a wealth of unintended, and surprising meanings.) Cartier-Bresson grows up in this intellectual environment. 1928-1929, studies at Cambridge (literature and painting). 1930, military service. 1931, visits Africa (Ivory Coast). Subsequently takes up photography (due not least to a photo taken by Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963), entitled: Negro Boys at Lake Tanganyika, 1930).

Acquires his first Leica. 1933, first exhibition of his imagery clearly drawing on Surrealism at Julien Levy's. In 1934, Cartier-Bresson meets a young Polish photographer named David Szymin. Through Szymin, Cartier-Bresson gets to know the Hungarian photographer Robert Capa (1913-54) who advises him to become a photojournalist, rather than cling on to surrealism. 1934-1935, takes part in an ethnographic expedition in Mexico. 1935, a year in New York. Film training under Paul Strand (1890-1976). 1936-1939, works with the film director Jean Renoir (La Vie est a Nous, La Regie du Jeu). 1940-1943, prisoner of war in Germany. Escape and resistance. 1945, documentary film Le Retour. 1946 ("posthumous") one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art NYC as the beginning of his international reputation. 1947, founding member of Magnum.

Like Walker Evans (1903-75), Cartier-Bresson showed a famous disregard for the technicalities of photographic processing. To him, photography was like "instant drawing", and technology interested him only in its ability to allow him to express what he saw. See also his elder contemporary Dorothea Lange (1895-1965).

For more about the early inventions upon which Cartier-Bresson's camera art was based, see: the History of Photography (1800-1900). For a different style of photographic art of the 1930s see the work of the Hungarian photographer Brassai (Gyula Halasz) (1899-1984).

Cartier-Bresson travels for more than 30 years on assignment for Life and other journals, covering trouble-spots and taking portraits of politicians, statesmen, artists and other famous individuals. 1948-1959, India, Burma, Pakistan, China, Indonesia. 1954, Soviet Union. 1958-1959, China. 1960, Cuba, Mexico, Canada. 1965, India and Japan. 1952, publishes Images a la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment), his most important book with a programmatic text. 1970, marries Franck. From the mid 1970s, returns more and more to drawing. Numerous awards, including the Kulturpreis from the DGPh (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Photographie: German Photographic Association) in 1967. Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson is founded in May 2003 in Paris.

For a brief discussion of the aesthetics and evolution of lens-based art, see: Is Photography Art?

Selected Exhibitions

Unless stated all shows are solo events.

1933 New York (Julien Levy Gallery)
1946 New York (Museum of Modern Art - 1968)
1954 Chicago (Art Institute)
1970 Paris (Grand Palais)
1974 New York (International Center of Photography - 1979, 1994)
1981 Zurich (Kunsthaus)
1984 Paris (Musee Caravalet)
1992 Bonn (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der BRD) group show
1997 Paris (European House of Photography - 2009)
2003 Paris (Bibliotheque nationale de France)
2004 Berlin (Martin-Gropius-Bau)
2004 Paris (Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson) joint exhibition
2006 Paris (Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson)
2007 New York (International Center of Photography)
2008 Vienna (WestLicht) group show
2009 Paris (Musee de l'Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre)
2010 New York (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
2010 Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago)
2011 Zurich (Museum of Design) group show
2011 Toulon (Maison de la Photo)
2012 Vienna (Kunsthaus)


In addition to the archive at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, public collections of photographs by Cartier-Bresson can be seen in the following institutions:

- Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris
- Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, Paris
- Musee Carnavalet, Paris
- J. Paul Getty Museum, LA, California
- Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
- Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Institute for Contemporary Photography, New York
- Philadelphia Art Institute, Pennsylvania
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- De Menil Collection, Houston
- Kahitsukan Kyoto Museum of Contemporary Art, Kyoto
- University of Fine Arts, Osaka
- Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Moderna Museet, Stockholm
- Museum of Modern Art, Tel Aviv

Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson are also regularly exhibited at some of the best galleries of contemporary art in both Europe and America, notably the Pompidou Centre in Paris.



Profiles of Other Famous Lens-Based Artists

In addition to those photographers mentioned above, here is a short list of the best known photographers of the early 20th century.

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Edward Weston (1886-1958)
Man Ray (1890-1976)
Irving Penn (1917-2009)
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007) and (b.1934)
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89)

• For more about street photography in Paris and elsewhere, see: Homepage.
• For other forms of camera work, see: Animation and Video Art.

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