The Photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Master of the Viewfinder Had Perfect Historical Timing

Paris. Pont des Arts. 1946. Jean-Paul Sartre, left, with architect Jean Pouillon. Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos hide caption

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itoggle caption Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson © Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption © Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS

India. 1950. Tamil Nadu. Madura. Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos hide caption

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itoggle caption Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founding father of photojournalism and one of the great photographers of all time, put down his Leica professionally in 1975 after a 45-year career behind the camera. "I never think about photography," he told NPR's Susan Stamberg during a recent visit to his Paris apartment. "It doesn't interest me."

"It's instant drawing," he says of photography. In fact, Cartier-Bresson, 94, began as a painter and he now draws rather than shoots. Not a single photograph is to be found on the walls of his apartment. "Only some drawings and paintings — and on a far wall — a large oil by Matisse," whom he knew, Stamberg says.

John Morris, his friend and onetime Life magazine photo editor, says Cartier-Bresson never discussed his decision to quit. "If he had, I would have said you're crazy to give up photography because in a way the rest of the 20th century was lost to his camera."

Stamberg describes what his camera found: "An Indian child in 1947, the baby's malnourished ribs echoing the lines of a nearby wagon wheel; Shanghai, 1949, a crush of people, desperate to sell their gold before Mao Zedong's revolution rolled over them; Moscow, 1954 — dust-covered men and women, taking a break to dance, before returning to their back-breaking construction jobs. Decisive moments..."

Cartier-Bresson's wife, photographer Martine Franck, says her husband always knew just where to be. "I think Henri had an innate intuition of what was going on in the world and what was important. I mean, you were in India when Gandhi was assassinated. You were in China when the communists arrived... You were in Russia at the right time."

Morris — who was executive editor of Magnum, the photo agency Cartier-Bresson helped found in 1947 — says the photographer had intelligence, education and a sense of history. "It comes from the heart. He has great human perception. He understands children, he understands old ladies, and he knows what moments are significant in terms of the human being."

A Cartier-Bresson retrospective is showing at the National Library in Paris until July 27.

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