The Decisive Moment: The Life and Photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson

In brief:

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most important photographers in the 20th century. He practiced ‘humanistic photography’, based on the ideals of the Enlightenment
  • Cartier-Bresson’s term ‘Decisive Moment’ refers to the fleeting meaningful instant captured by the camera
  • The photo cooperative Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and other travelling photojournalists. It is possibly the most prestigious photo agency in the world and currently represents about 90 international photographers
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson was the first Western photographer to be allowed to photograph somewhat freely in the Soviet Union. His photographs capture the moods of Soviet citizens at a relatively free period immediately after Stalin’s death

Info Box: Street Photography and the Decisive Moment >>

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer famous for popularising the term ‘Decisive Moment’, was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie in France on August 22, 1908, and died at the age of 95 in Céreste, France, on August 3, 2004. He was the oldest of the five children born to Andre Cartier-Bresson, a wealthy textile manufacturer, and Marthe Leverdier, a daughter of cotton merchants and wealthy landowners.

Little Henri spent his childhood on Rue de Lisbonne, in an affluent part of Paris. His early schooling took place at École Fénelon, a catholic school in Paris, where he was tutored by an English governess, Kitty, who instilled in him the love of the language. He would later become completely bilingual, studying at the University of Cambridge from 1928 to 1929 as well as travelling in the USA.

During these early years, Cartier-Bresson tried his hand on photography using a Box Brownie camera and a large-format view camera. His initial artistic love was painting, however, to which he was introduced by his uncle Louis, and which he studied at the Lhote Academy. The art school bearing his name was founded by André Lhote (1885-1962), a French cubist painter and sculptor. The time at Lhote Academy gave Cartier-Bresson a formal understanding of art theory and composition, which consequently helped him overcome problems encountered during his photographic career. André Lhote, Cartier-Bresson remarked, was his teacher of “photography without camera.”

The First Camera


Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic journey started in earnest in 1929 when he was given his first camera, a Box Brownie, by the American expatriate Harry Crosby (1898-1929) who, with his wife Caresse Crosby (1891-1970) ran a publishing house called Black Sun Press. They would publish early works by such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Anaîs Nin, Hart Crane and even Charles Bukowski.

Crosbies had an open marriage, and a sexual relationship between Caresse Crosby and the young Cartier-Bresson developed, apparently with the full knowledge and consent of all parties. The relationship lasted until 1931, two years after the suicide of Harry Crosby in 1929. The devastated Cartier-Bresson escaped his intense feelings into the French African colony of Côte d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast. In Africa, he made a living by hunting wild game and selling it in local villages. The African odyssey ended almost as quickly as it started. Cartier-Bresson contracted malaria and was force to return to France. The trip to Africa wasn’t completely wasted, however. Hunting proved useful for his photography. It taught him skills common to both stalking prey on the Savannah and waiting for the decisive moment with a camera.

“I adore shooting photographs,” he commented on the similarities of killing animals and nailing a street photo. “ It’s like being a hunter. But some hunters are vegetarians – which is my relationship to photography.” This enigmatic remark meant, according to the website, that he was more interested in “taking shots rather than making prints and showing his work.”

The decisive moment for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic career was seeing a photograph titled Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika taken by the Hungarian Photographer Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963) in 1929 or 1930. The photo shows three naked boys full of life running into the water of Lake Tanganyika. The photograph made Cartier-Bresson realise, as he said, “that a photograph could fix eternity in an instant.” As a consequence of this revelation, he abandoned painting for some 45 years, only returning to in 1975, when he stopped photographing regularly and again concentrated on painting.

Cartier-Bresson’s weapon of choice for photography was a Leica camera with a 50mm lens which combination he used for almost all his photography – with the exception of some landscape work done with a wide-angle lens. The Leica camera allowed him to photograph without attracting attention. He never used flash while photographing and even went so far as to sticky tape the chrome body of his camera with back tape to make it more inconspicuous. Spontaneity and candidness was to become one of the cornerstones of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography.

Humanistic Photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rome 1959

In addition to his street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson worked as a photojournalist for LIFE magazine for 30 years. He covered such historical events as the funeral of Gandhi in 1948 and the Chinese civil war in 1949. Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photojournalism was heavily influenced by street photography and his interest in “humanistic photography”.

Closely related to documentary photography, humanistic photography records the everyday lives lived by normal people. It is based on the principles of the Enlightenment and has social change as its goal. An example of Cartier-Bresson’s humanistic approach to photography would be the coverage of the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1937. Instead of photographing the royals, he documented the people gathered on the streets to celebrate the coronation.

Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson Dessau Germany 1945

Magnum Photos is a photographic cooperative founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson and other famous photographers of the time, including Robert Capa (1913-1954), David “Chim” Seymour (1911-1956), George Rodger (1908-1995) and William Vandivert (1912-1989). Owned and managed by its members, Magnum Photos has offices in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo. The exclusive agency represents a wide selection of photographers but concentrates on journalistic, artistic and story-telling photography, providing photographers for media, publishers, charities and cultural institutions.

There are currently 91 members in the cooperative. The selection process for becoming a full member takes at least four years, starting with a portfolio submission. The meeting to decide on new members is held annually in June. The newly selected Nominee Members can apply for Associate membership after two years, and for full membership after four years. Members are selected by a vote, with a minimum 66% majority required to be accepted.

The idea behind the founding of Magnum Photos in the post-World War II years was to allow its member a chance to work independently of the “formulas of magazine journalism.” The cooperative would support, rather than direct the members. The agency would sell rights of use to magazines and press agencies, with the copyrights remaining with the individual photographers. This enabled the photographers to work independently of photo assignments from the media, and to sell their work to multiple newspapers and magazines. In a sense, Magnum Photos was formed to support a group of freelance photographers who valued their freedom to work independently of any one publication.

The need for artistic and professional freedom itself stemmed from the traumatic experiences suffered by the founding members of Magnum Photos. Henri Cartier-Bresson had been incarcerated in a prison camp by the Germans. He managed to escape from the camp on his third try, after which he joined the French Resistance. George Rodger, who had been documenting the war in Burma, walked three hundred miles through the jungle to escape the Japanese invasion forces. The parents of the Polish-born David Seymour were murdered by the Nazis. Robert Capa, born Endre Friedmann, covered the D-Day invasion in Normandy and would later die, at age 40, while documenting the First Indochina War in the French Indochina in 1954.

For Cartier-Bresson, the founding of Magnum Photos provided stability and a new direction during a confused time. “Back in France, I was completely lost,” Cartier-Bresson remembers. “At the time of the liberation, the world having been disconnected, people had a new curiosity. I had a little bit of money from my family, which allowed me to avoid working in a bank. I had been engaged in looking for the photo for itself, a little like one does with a poem. With Magnum was born the necessity for telling a story. Capa said to me: ‘Don’t keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear. Don’t fidget. Get moving!’ This advice enlarged my field of vision.”

Marriage to Martine Franck and Final Years

Henri Cartier-Bresson Soviet Union 1954

In his later years, Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed in many different countries. He was the first Western photographer to be allowed to photograph somewhat freely in the Soviet Union, although freedom in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was an illusory concept at best, as has been conclusively demonstrated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his works describing the Gulag labour camps.

Like many leftist intellectuals before him, Cartier-Bresson revealed a carefully constructed image of the Soviet Union for the Western consumption. His photography shows workers and other common people – men and women – congregating in market places, waiting for trams on the street or studying in university lecture halls.
The people in Soviet Union were no doubt celebrating the death of possibly the worst dictator of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, and there seems to be genuine happiness in some of the photos. The country was, however, far from being free and the persecution of dissidents, and Christians, continued all the way to the 1990s when the totalitarian communist state was finally dissolved. Knowing the history of the Soviet Union, it is hard to imagine that Cartier-Bresson’s time in the country would have been unchaperoned. Communism will not allow the real truth of its nature to surface in any circumstances.

Cartier-Bresson began to concentrate on portrait and landscape photography from the 1966 onwards when he also resigned from his position as the Magnum Photos Principal. In 1967, he divorced from his first wife, Ratna “Elie” Mohini (1904-1988), a Javanese dancer. He concentrated increasingly on painting and drawing and finally retired from photography in the early 1970s.

In 1970, Cartier-Bresson married a fellow Magnum photographer Martine Franck (1938-2012) with whom he had a daughter, Mélanie, in 1972. Cartier-Bresson died of natural causes in the small commune of Céreste in southeastern France in 2004. Before his death, in 2003, he started a foundation bearing his name to preserve his photographic legacy.

Throughout his career, Henri Cartier-Bresson was influenced and inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, progress and tolerance which he encapsulated on his many photojournalistic assignments throughout the world. He was deeply involved in painting from early childhood and later gained much inspiration from the films of such masters of cinematography as D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim. His own film career started as the second assistant director to Jean Renoir in 1936 for his movies La vie est à nous and Une partie de campagne. Cartier-Bresson himself directed a number of movies on a cinematic career spanning from 1937 to 1971. Films about Henri Cartier-Bresson, or incorporating his photographs, are also numerous.

Street Photography and 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

Street photography is candid or unguarded photography that takes place on the street. It is a flexible category of photography which may or may not have people as its subject. The important thing, when practicing street photography, is to be alert to the changes happening on the street. Street photographers anticipate and react to situation happening around them. From a compositional point of view, the photos taken on the street will always have an element of chance to them.

On the street, there is not enough time for carefully composing photographs. The photographer walks the streets with the intention of finding and recording socially and esthetically significant moments. The lack of compositional finesse is one of the charms of this kind of photography. The street photographer’s ability to compose an image in his viewfinder in a fraction of a second will improve with practice, however. The question, at this stage of his development, is not regarding the framing of the photo anymore. A more pressing issue is about the timing.

Successful timing of his street photography is what made Henri Cartier-Bresson as celebrated a photographer as he was. The term coined by him, Decisive Moment, refers to the fleeting meaningful moment captured by the camera. The process is based on experience and intuition.

A seasoned photographer knows that certain situations and combinations of conditions have a positive outcome in terms of photographic opportunities. By keeping himself alert to the developments happening around him, the photographer can sort and sift events, and to be ready for the Decisive Moment. Cartier-Bresson talks about ‘knowing and intuiting’.

The knowing consists of conscious preparation for the photographic moment described above. It is intuition, however, that dictates the final, exact instant of triggering the shutter button. The intuited timing is beyond the rational decision-making process but can still be trained to work more or less reliably by repeated exposure to momentary dramas happening on the streets of any city.

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the relationship between knowing and intuition is an intimate one:

“Your eye must see a composition of an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”


Henri Cartier-Bresson on Wikipedia:

Henri Cartier-Bresson Biography:

Magnum Photos Adds Record-Breaking Number of New Members:

Magnum Photographers:

About Magnum: Submissions:

About Magnum: Overview:

History of Magnum:

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