He was heir to a successful family business, but he wanted to paint.
His father agreed to pay for his art education in Paris where he was trained by a teacher obsessed with geometry and “the laws of composition”. He found the disciplined exercises boring and escaped socially into the Surrealist movement - although the golden rectangle he practiced so often had become second nature to him and is evident in almost all of his photographs. Some friends in his artistic circle encouraged him to take up photography. In the early 1930’s, he saw a photograph by Martin Munkacsi and was hooked.
He set off on adventurous travels to document real life in different countries and figured out how to support himself by selling his photographs to magazines. In an interview in 1958, he said, “When I started photography in 1930 there were hardly any picture magazines, there was no market. And I was taking pictures of things that struck me, interested me.” His photographs developed into a combination of his compassion for humanity, his affinity for Surrealism, and his training in composition.
“What I am looking for, above all else, is to be attentive to life.”
In September 1939, France declared war on Germany, and he joined the Film and Photography Unit of the French army. On June 23, 1940 he was taken prisoner by the German army and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. In May 1941, he escaped with another prisoner but was captured a few days later. In November, he tried again and was again recaptured. Fifteen months later, in February 1943, after two failed attempts, Prisoner 845 successfully escaped. He made his way across the French border and hid at a farm until he obtained forged papers. Then, he worked for the underground helping other escapees obtain forged papers.
For years, he worked as a photojournalist, a portrait photographer, and occasionally a film maker (including a film about the return of French citizens from German concentration camps). While some photographers sought to make generalized statements, he tried to document individuals in their particularity.
“Every individual has a unique character and is marked out for a particular destiny.”
In 1947, he and his friends founded one of the most revered photo agencies, Magnum Photos. In 1955, his photographs were exhibited at the Louvre. In the early 1970s, he found himself at odds with the more commercial direction of the new Magnum members and terminated his relationship with the organization. He laid down his camera, and for the rest of his life, he focused on drawing.
In 2004, Henri Cartier-Bresson died.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the more well known fathers of street photography. Back when I didn't even know what street photography was, I stumbled upon an exhibit of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta. I was mesmerized by his photographs. But when I started reading about his life, I became even more fascinated by him because he continually did hard things. Cartier-Bresson could have had a comfortable life in the family business but chose a career that was more meaningful to him. He was not deterred when he failed twice to escape from a German POW camp but was determined to try again. (Seriously, how many times would you try to escape from a concentration camp?) He did not rest on his laurels but made artistic decisions based on his personal beliefs. He continually took the more difficult path but called it “le dur plaisir” (hard pleasure). His story reveals how the complexities and struggles of life can flow through a person to create beautiful work.
“Photography appears to be an easy activity;
in fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practioners is their instrument...To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.
It is putting one’s head,
and one’s heart
on the same axis."
– Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye
* Information obtained from "The Mind's Eye" by Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Henri Cartier-Bresson/Scrapbook" published by Thames & Hudson and "Henri Cartier-Bresson The Modern Century" by Peter Galassi.
Meredith M Howard is a photographer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She was inspired to start THE STREETS magazine after many conversations with strangers in downtown Atlanta.