We are delighted to continue our series of iconic photographs, images that capture a decisive moment or an attitude.
Our subject is Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) and his 1954 portrait: “Rue Mouffetard, Paris”. A depiction of local boy – Rue Mouffetard is in Paris’ 5th Arrondissment – Michel Gabriel, proudly carrying two magnums of wine. The boy’s expressive face is evocative of Puck both knowing and innocent. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of the young face, the contented expression and the fact he is carrying an adult product that adds to its charm. Behind the boy are a pair of girls who seem to be applauding his efforts and sharing in his joy.
It’s said that Cartier-Bresson stayed in touch with Michel and attended his 50th birthday in the late 1990’s. He arrived at his party to a closed door which on cue was opened and the great photographer stood in a similar pose carrying two magnums!
Cartier-Bresson’s trade mark was candid photography – often in the street – that have marked him as one of the great pioneers of modern photography.
The oldest of five children of a wealthy textile manufacturer, the family lived in Paris in Rue de Lisbonne, a middle class neighbourhood close to Gare St Lazare and the Parc Monceau.
A good student, post Lycée, Henri went to an art school, Lhote Academy – the studio of Cubist, Andre Lhote, whom he regarded as his teacher of “photography without a camera.”
In the late 1920’s meeting various Surrealists “with an appetite for the usual and unusual” was an inspiration. In 1928/9 he attended Cambridge University studying art and literature. In 1930 he was conscripted into the French Army and was introduced to photography by American, Harry Crosby.
He spent time in West Africa and contracted blackwater fever that nearly killed him. Returning to recuperate in Marseille he saw and was hugely influenced by the work of Martin Munkacsi, a photojournalist. In Marseille, he purchased a Leica 35mm camera-body – he always preferred small bodied cameras – and a 50mm lens. He painted any shiny part of the camera with black paint to increase his anonymity.
He cared little for photographic technique, never used a flash or cropped a photo. Throughout his working life he shot almost exclusively in black and white
He travelled extensively and his resulting works were first shown in New York in 1932 at the Julien Levy Gallery. In 1934 he met a Hungarian photographer named Endré Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa.
In September 1939 he joined the French Army, but was captured and spent three years in a prison camp before successfully escaping to work with the Resistance, secretly photographing the Occupation of France and its Liberation. In 1943 he dug up his Leica – having buried it in a field near Vosges – and worked for the American Office of War Information.
In early 1947, Henri, Capa, David Seymour and others established Magnum Photos, a co-operative photographic agency owned by its members and divided assignments amongst them. Henri’s coverage of Gandhi’s funeral in India in 1948 and his work in early Maoist China in 1949 are particularly celebrated.
He retired from photography in the early 1970s preferring to draw and paint. The antithesis of the celebrity photographer being both shy and private, very few photos of him exist.