Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Henri Cartier-Bresson Photo

Henri Cartier-Bresson

French Photographer and Filmmaker

Born: August 22, 1908 - Chantelop-en-Brie, France
Died: August 3, 2004 - Montjustin, France
"There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment"
1 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life."
2 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression."
3 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously."
4 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"Individual people interest me more than buildings do"
5 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"Oop! The moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."
6 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"Photography in color? It is something indigestible, the negation of all photography's three-dimensional values."
7 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to "trap life" - to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unfolding itself before my eyes."
8 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"This profession depends so much upon the relations the photographer establishes with the people he's photographing, that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything."
9 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not a major concern."
10 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"To take a photograph is to hold one's breath when all faculties converge in the face of feeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy."
11 of 12
Henri Cartier-Bresson Signature
"The photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson has resulted in a body of work unique in the history of this craft, not alone in kin but in quality. Apart from the fact that he is responsible for more individual memorable images than any other photographer in his epoch, his attitude toward his art... is based on a philosophy at once tradition, logical, and exemplary."
12 of 12
Lincoln Kirstein

Summary of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson's work spanned photographic genres for the entirety of his long career. He is regarded as a pioneer of candid and street photography but he is also well-known for having produced some of the most compelling photographic portraits of notables ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre and Leonard Bernstein to Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X. An early user of 35mm film, Cartier-Bresson preferred never to use the darkroom to adjust his photographs, a choice that enhanced the spontaneity of his images and emphasized what he called "the decisive moment." No single photographer is more closely linked to the development of modern photojournalism than is Cartier-Bresson, whose itinerant nature brought him to some of the most momentous events and sites in modern history - from the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation to the assassination of Mahatma Ghandi.


  • To enhance his capacity to take the kind of candid shots he preferred, Cartier-Bresson often wrapped his Leica camera in black tape to make it less obtrusive. Assuming the role of the modern flâneur, his camera became an extension of his eye as he wandered, seeking visually, psychologically, and intellectually stimulating visual material. Ironically, while Cartier-Bresson could linger for hours observing, patiently awaiting the perfect shot, he was always poised to make the snap decisions required to seize a given moment to fix in time.
  • Cartier-Bresson co-founded The Magnum Photo agency - a cooperative owned by its members -that connected the photographers with clients around the world. The agency's mission was to widely disseminate photographs that were in one way or another exemplary of the modern era and also inherently humanitarian.
  • In addition to still photography, Cartier-Bresson was an accomplished filmmaker, who first became interested in the medium when he worked with Jean Renoir. His filmography includes nearly ten films and he is regarded as an influential figure in the development of cinéma verité.
  • Cartier-Bresson's earlier inclination toward painting endured even after he stopped painting to pursue a long and fruitful career in photography. While he didn't return to producing canvases actively until late in life, the formal training informed his photography, disciplined his eye, and compelled him not only to continue to cultivate relationships with the notable, avant-garde painters of his era but also to regard his own photographic style as a kind of nexus between painting and photography.

Biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson Photo

Born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France in 1908 to a wealthy textile merchant, Henri Cartier-Bresson was the eldest of five children. His mother, Marthe, exposed him to the arts including taking him on trips to the Louvre in Paris, attending chamber music concerts, and regularly reading him poetry. His father, Andre, was a severe man, consumed with the role of paternal duty and dedicated to his successful textile business. In response to his father's defection to the world of business, Henri vowed at an early age never to follow in his father's footsteps.

Important Art by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Progression of Art

Place de l'Europe Gare Saint Lazare

Place de l'Europe is one of Cartier-Bresson's most successful images. The snapshot of a man gleefully hopping over a flooded area in Paris captures the moment just before the man's heel hits the water. The instant is filled with a sort of dynamic anticipation. A hazily-captured building in the distance contrasts with the richly ornamented, spiked fence and the two diverse elements combine in an alchemy of lines, curves, and reflections that creates the urban background for the jumper. Diagonal to the figure is a poster featuring a finely-drawn image of a female dancer leaping gracefully into the air. The poster for a circus called "Railowsky" is a visual play on the jumper's stiff stride that extends in a blur across the picture frame.

The spontaneity of the photo, which was captured in the bustling urban space, the Place de l'Europe outside of the busy Paris train station of Saint Lazare, epitomized the new, fast-paced environment in Europe with its trains, cars, and factories. Modern motion is celebrated by the fact that it is forever stopped, the leaping man will never hit the puddle, the split-second image is permanently frozen in time. The improvements in camera technology allowed for such images to be made and this progress is celebrated in Cartier-Bresson's photographs.

The iconic railway served as the setting for many famous 20th-century painters such as Manet, Caillebotte, and Monet, all of whom had been influential in Cartier-Bresson's own artistic development. This photo would also come to embody what he later described as the "decisive moment" - that instant a photographer decides to press the shutter and the event it memorializes.

Place de l'Europe is one of only a few photographs that Cartier-Bresson ever chose to crop. Ordinarily, he avoided adjusting his work after originally framing a shot and instead embraced unmediated chance encounters, an aesthetic preference and practice that made him one of the founders of street photography. A fragment of the fence that he is behind can be seen in the original shot and partially obscures the view.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York


Hyéres, France

Hyéres, France is an example of Cartier-Bresson's commitment to a sense of geometry and order. The stair rail leads the viewer's eye spiraling down to the street where the cyclist is frozen in the exact void between the building and the stair railing. The combination of architectural elements and the blurry image of the biker emphasize movement through their spirals, curves, and slight distortion. Cartier-Bresson's taste for construction through a tight, clear system of carefully ordered forms stemmed from his art teacher, Lhote, who was a Cubist painter. Paired with the aid of his Leica, Cartier-Bresson discovered the possibility of creating geometrical constructions in photography, structures that were enclosed within a perfect proportion (2:3) of the frame.

Cartier-Bresson took Hyéres while on vacation in the Cote d'Azure region. In what became his trademark style of casually walking around town looking for subject matter or perching in opportune vantage points, he chose a spot at the top of a staircase from which he could peer down on a small turn in the road. With this image, he succeeded in capturing what the Surrealist Andre Breton described as the consummate photograph: when '"shadow and prey mingled in a unique flash."

Gelatin Silver Print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York


Seville, Spain

This photograph captures a group of children playing in the rubble in Seville, Spain. Framed by the empty, bombed-out section of a wall, the children interact joyfully and uninhibitedly among the ruins and desolation, in a space that is profoundly unchildlike. They are completely unaware that they are being observed. The ragged edges of the white, stuccoed wall could just as easily be the very surface of the photograph tearing open and inviting the viewer to look on undiscovered. The ambiguity of the picture space is a testament to Cartier-Bresson's engagement with Surrealism, of which visual puzzles were a major feature.

Cartier-Bresson was aware that, if the subjects in the snapshot knew they were being photographed, spontaneity would be compromised. In order to avoid being detected, he painted the shiny parts of his Leica black so as not to draw attention to himself. The voyeuristic nature of the photographer's vantage point - peering at the children from beyond the bombed-out wall - adds a more complex, psychological dimension to the image: the children become, in a sense, actors on a stage. The play itself seems completely incongruous with the set.

Gelatin Silver Print - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California


Natcho Aguirre, Santa Clara

This photograph, shot during a trip to Mexico in 1934, exemplifies the heavy influence of Surrealism on Cartier-Bresson's work, an influence that endured, resurfacing at times as late as the 1960s. In the late 1920s, the young artist had spent time at the cafés on the Place Blanche in the bohemian area of Montmartre in Paris. While he admitted that, at the time, he had been "too shy and too young to talk," he absorbed a great deal and retained some of the major themes of the Surrealists such as bodies deformed or in fragments - disembodied limbs, heads, torsos, mannequins, wrapped or otherwise obscured objects, and often bizarre juxtapositions of unrelated objects.

Like the Surrealist painters, Cartier-Bresson's Surrealist photographs are perplexing and, in some cases, disturbing visual games intended to provoke the subconscious mind to make connections that are deeply personal. The erotic nature of this work, captures the "convulsive beauty" espoused by Surrealist leader, Andre Breton. The half-naked man who seems to be writhing free of the remainder of his clothing could be contorting himself in either agony or ecstasy - the ambiguity is what makes the image, at least in part, so deeply unsettling. There is something Christ-like in the crossed arms, conveying suffering or conversely, a peculiar sort of intimate, self-embracing.

Inexplicably, the shoes take on a significance because of their displacement. Cast off and ordinary, in the context of this image, juxtaposed with the mysterious male torso, there is no logic to their inclusion in the composition. Indeed, the uncanny juxtaposition was a hallmark of Surrealism that Cartier-Bresson found irresistible.

Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY


Juvisy, France

Cartier-Bresson's early exposure to and education in painting heavily informed the way he viewed the world and conceived of photographic composition. Juvisy depicts two couples picnicking on the banks of the Marne river on a warm summer's day, a scene that had become almost ubiquitous in Impressionist paintings. The elevated vantage point of the photographer-observer, at the top of the steep riverbank, initiates a kind of cascading visual effect as he glances down at the picnickers who in turn look down toward the boat as it rests on a river mirroring the sky.

The cascading or layered visual effect of the photograph is echoed in the narrative. On the surface, Cartier-Bresson is depicting a familiar trope from the history of art and, in particular, the recent Impressionist movement: people engaged in leisure activities in the Parisian countryside. However, as is often the case with his work, the photographer also engages with the social and political: at the time Juvisy was made, French workers were involved in a campaign to win more vacation time. Cartier-Bresson had in fact been sent on assignment by the left-wing Paris newspaper, Ce Soir, to document the workers' movement. This photograph was never published in the newspaper, but it is now considered one of Cartier-Bresson's most classic images.

Gelatin Silver Photograph - National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia


Birla House, India

Birla House, India documents a visibly shocked Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, announcing the death of Mahatma Gandhi to the crowd outside his home. It was an extremely challenging shot for Cartier-Bresson who never used a flash. The dramatic lighting aids in relaying the gravity of the historic speech and the pathos of the moment: the outline of Nehru's head is illuminated while his face remains obscured by shadow; the British officer sitting next to him is similarly lit. The multiple light sources, whose beams cross one another and clash, create a kind of chaotic, layered image that evokes the confusion of that eventful moment.

The photograph is as much a document of Cartier-Bresson's sudden awareness of the historical import of the event and, moreover, of the particular moment it captures: the independence of India from British colonial rule and the tragedy of Gandhi's death. It is a psychological portrait of the photographer and of the nation as a whole in addition to functioning as a visual historical document.
He covered Gandhi's funeral and was one of the last people to speak with him before he died -little more than an hour before he was shot and killed. In fact, his photos are the last ones ever taken of Gandhi. His wife, Mohini, who was friends with the ill-fated Indian Prime Minister's sister, had arranged for Cartier-Bresson to meet with Gandhi in his compound.

Gelatin Silver Print - Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation - Paris, France


Shanghai, China

Cartier-Bresson captures the chaos of the turbulent transition years of 1948-49 in Shanghai. Life magazine sent Cartier-Bresson to China to document the civil war and unrest that accompanied the political transition from the Chinese National Party, Kuomintang, to Communist rule under Mao Zedong and the People's Liberation Army. At the time, the value of paper money plummeted and the Kuomintang decided to distribute 40 grams of gold per person to stave off even worse civil unrest. In this deeply unsettling image, frantic Chinese citizens have lined up to sell their gold before Mao Zedong's revolution could render even the reliable currency of gold obsolete and impoverish them further.

In the photo, the subjects stand together in a crush of bodies whose desperation fuses them into a single mass. The group stands in for the millions of Chinese citizens who queued up throughout the country. Cartier-Bresson has framed the photograph so that, while only a small portion of the crowd that had amassed can be seen, the viewer can easily imagine the crush of bodies beyond the confines of the picture's borders. The claustrophobic character of this image, captured so succinctly by Cartier-Bresson is all too real as the photo was taken before ten lives were lost in the suffocating crush. As a photographer in the Realist tradition, he imbues the image with his own humanist sensibility, combining social commentary with his own striking sense of candor.

Gelatin Silver Print - Met, New York, New York


New York

Cartier-Bresson photographed the taping of a T.V. game show called, To Tell the Truth, one of several question-and-answer televised contests popular with audiences in the late 1950s.

New York, relying on the centuries old painting trope of "a picture within a picture," presents three separate stories in a single image. The television in the foreground represents the contestant as the viewer at home sees him on their television. Behind the T.V., on an elevated podium, an emcee describes the contestant's actions to home viewers and the studio audience. In the background, three men occupy a stage that can only be seen by the studio audience. The multiple layers of both perspective and representation he creates emphasize the capacity of the camera - whether in motion or still - to manipulate the viewer and, in this instance, create varying versions of the "truth." New York confronts issues of subjectivity and veracity, as do many of the films Cartier-Bresson made after WWII. He was fascinated with the new technology of live television broadcasting and combines technological layers in this single, complex image.

Gelatin Silver Print - Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation - Paris, France


Alberto Giacometti, Maeght Gallery, Paris

This photo reveals Cartier-Bresson's witty side. In this portrait of his friend, the Swiss painter and sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, taken in the Maeght Gallery, the artist unconsciously mimics the subjects of his own work. Giacometti, no more demonstrative than his sculpted companions, carries yet a smaller sculpture whilst clenching a cigarette between his teeth. Giacometti's angled posture echoes the slanted stances of his two most famous statues. Cartier-Bresson manages to convey his friend's characteristic nervousness at the same time that he imposes a sense of elegance on this scene: the figures move in tandem, there is a kind of partnership brought about by resemblance between the artist and his works.

The photo actually documents a busy Giacometti installing the exhibition showcasing the two celebrated sculptures, Grande Femme Debout (Large Standing Woman) and L'Homme Qui Marche (Walking Man). Although Cartier-Bresson produced portraits of other successful artists of the period such as Matisse, Picasso, and Dalí, among others, he and Giacometti had been friends since the mid-1930s and enjoyed a particularly close relationship, which included a shared inexhaustible curiosity concerning the human condition.

Gelatin Silver Print - Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris, France

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Henri Cartier-Bresson

video clips
Do more

Content compiled and written by Jackie Meade

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Brynn Hatton

"Henri Cartier-Bresson Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jackie Meade
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Brynn Hatton
Available from:
First published on 19 Nov 2016. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]