Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is probably one of the most well-known photographers there is, many of whose images are instantly recognizable, such as the man at Gare Saint-Lazare jumping over a puddle. He made the term ‘decisive moment’ a familiar one, and was one of the founder members of Magnum. In his early years he was involved in the Surrealist Movement, who believed that the main purpose of art is to show instinct over reality, which may be achieved by removing an object from its usual environment to give an unusual clarity to it. Throughout his long career he was involved in both still photograph and making films. He was a very disciplined photographer and would frequently look for the perfect position, move to it and then wait for the subject to move into it. ‘To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second,the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which give the event its proper expression’ (Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, 1952).
Cartier-Bresson photographed an enormous variety of subjects, from Communist China to office workers in New York, to portraits of famous personalities. His portraits often showed a gesture that was representative of the person, as is shown here in the portrait of George Balanchine.
Cartier-Bresson was always more interested in where he was going next and the next photo than what was happening to photographs he had already taken. His work, by the end, reached across the world and though a lifetime of major cultural changes. He wrote in The Decisive Moment ‘ It is though living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the world around us.’
On looking at a large collection of Cartier-Bresson’s images very soon after looking at the images of Claude Cahun I was struck by the extreme difference between them, in spite of the similarities in their social class, imprisonment by Nazi Germany, time span (at least for the first half of Cartier-Bresson’s life) and early influence by the Surrealists.Cahun has ‘internalised’ her work, all is about self and changes to self, while Cartier-Bresson has ‘externalised’ his, all is about looking at the world with a clear, almost dispassionate, view.
I found Cartier-Bresson‘s images en masse stunning. The range is fascinating, and the sheer clarity of his view amazing. Some are, inevitably, more engaging to me than others, but overall they are images I will return to regularly.
Hamberg, Germany 1952-1953
(with thanks to my tutor Alan Whetton for pointing me in this direction)