Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France, of prosperous middle-class parents. His interest in photography started at a very early age. As a boy, Cartier-Bresson owned a Box Brownie, which he used for taking holiday snapshots. Later, he experimented with a 3 1/4″ x 4 1/4″ view camera. Cartier-Bresson’s early training in art (for two years, he studied painting in a Paris studio) helped develop a subtle and sensitive eye for composition. This was seen as one of Cartier-Bresson’s greatest assets as a photographer.
In 1931, at the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson went to the West African bush as a hunter. After a year, he returned to France after catching backwater fever. During the convalescence, he first truly discovered photography. He later recalled how he “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.”
When World War II broke out, Cartier-Bresson briefly served in the French Army. During the Battle of France, he was captured by the Germans. After two unsuccessful tries, he escaped from a prisoners of war camp, and worked with the French Resistance until the war’s end. He was believed dead in 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a posthumous exposition.
In 1947, Cartier-Bresson helped form the Magnum photo agency. Assignments for major magazines took him across Europe and the United States, to India, Russia and China. Many books of his photographs were published in the 50s and 60s; the most famous was The Decisive Moment (1952). In The Decisive Moment, Cartier-Bresson said that the decisive moment is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.
A major milestone in his career was a massive, 400-print retrospective exhibition, which toured the United States in 1960. Cartier-Bresson was the winner of the 1982 Hasselblad Award.
On August 3, 2004 at the age of 95 Cartier-Bresson died in Céreste (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France).