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Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

In a life no short of moments that are worth a spot in an engaging highlight reel of his times, Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 03, 2004) dabbled in everything from music to painting; from fighting for the cause of France in World War II to escaping a Nazi POW camp after three gruelling years; from indulging in a heady relationship with a sexually liberated friend’s spouse to descending into his own ‘heart of darkness’, coming within flirting distance of death after the words of Joseph Conrad inspired him to head for the proverbial ‘dark continent’.

A pioneering practitioner of candid street photography, Cartier-Bresson incorporated elements of classical artistic forms in his exercise, which was in turn an intellectual gift of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘teacher’, the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote whose ambition it was to integrate elements of French classical tradition with the worldview of the Cubists.

Cartier-Bresson, however, found a lease of life away from the structural confines of Lhote and in the realm of the surrealists who recognized the unquestionable truth and appreciated the capricious diversity of meanings of ‘ordinary’ photographs, largely derided as an art form till the time.

Cartier-Bresson briefly indulged in documentary filmmaking before immersing himself head-on in photojournalism. His first assignment had been the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 for a French weekly for which he famously took no photos of the king and only documented the enthusiastic subjects thronging the London streets for a view of the monarch. He also documented the Spanish civil war of 1936-39.

After the founding of Magnum photos with friends Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger in 1947, Cartier-Bresson assigned himself to India and China, where he would extensively photograph and cover focal points in history such as the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 and the transitory years of Chinese political history, documenting the final six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of China’s Maoist regime.

Cartier-Bresson photographed revolutionary leader turned ascetic Sri Aurobindo Ghosh in Pondicherry and captured Indonesia’s independence from their Dutch overlords.

Cartier-Bresson documented the student rebellion of Paris in 1968 and it was the last major event of international influence that he would cover, retiring effectively in early-70s to return to painting.

Having worked near exclusively in black and white, the life of Henri Cartier-Bresson is as much a lesson in photography as it is a lesson in life itself, whose penchant for finding and filming the defining moments of life was an extension of his bid to understand the same and appreciate the slices of time that make life worth living.

In a career spanning 30 years, even after photographing events that would shape the trajectory of the 20th century and portraits of personalities such as Albert Camus, Ezra Pound, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, it is interesting to note that Cartier-Bresson’s most memorable works are the candid shots that he would take with the aid of his small, Leica 35mm rangefinder camera with a traditional 50mm lens. Cartier-Bresson’s choice of weapon was a masterstroke in itself as the smaller size of the camera enabled him to command an anonymity that allowed him to capture what has been later described as the ‘decisive moment’, a composition in time that has been, in fact, gifted to the photographer who must recognise it in a flash and capture it for posterity. []

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015

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Coronation of King George VI
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