Henry Cartier-Bresson

" The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera
and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box."

Henry Cartier-Bresson (1908 - 2004) is one of the great artist of the twentieth century, famous for revealing through his photos the richness, the sensibilities, and the varieties of the human experience.

Many of his pictures have long been regarded as masterpieces, however he himself has chosen to remain virtually invisible.

Through the years the artist has proven with his work that photography is capable of faithfully reproducing reality, all you have to do is catch the right moment to show the people and surrounding world in all their happiness and unhappiness.

Henry Cartier-Bresson travelled around the world through countries and continents, always in search of the right moment. The moment in question is "le moment decisive", the decisive moment at which the elements in motion come together and are in complete balance, thus reflecting the every day and revealing something of the nature of life. His camera presented a fresh point of view of the world responding to the rhythms of life while capturing the drama in seemingly ordinary moments.


Henry Cartier-Bresson

"To photograph is to hold one's breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It's at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy. ""

Has Henry Cartier-Bresson's photographic approach influenced your photography
in any way? Do you have a 'Decisive Moment' picture of your own to share?
Click here to share your story and/or photographs with us

Henry Cartier-Bresson took pictures like that for more than half a century, always in black and white and with his small hand-held Leica camera. When in 1932 this new kind of camera came out it was quite a miracle. Its small and light design, equipped with a sharp, fast lens and filled with a long roll of 35mm film, was a complete opposite to the large and cumbersome camera used until then.

It also revealed new horizons to photographers; it made it possible to capture spontaneous motion while creating beautiful composition. Henry Cartier-Bresson has always shown an enormous talent for perception and ability to react, together with a sense to be at the right place at the right time in situations that interested him, and then captured the moment in its culmination.


Henry Cartier-Bresson was a true observer, who knew what he wanted and what interested him. He once compared himself to a fisherman. The most important thing was to approach his catch cautiously, and to strike at just the right moment. The only difference was that the catch was not an animal but a chance.


Henry Cartier-Bresson was born on 22 August 1908 in Chanteloup, near Paris. His upper middle-class family was wealthy and progressive. His family managed a successful textile business and his father wanted him to make his career the textile industry. However, his heart was set to follow a different pattern and he succeeded to become a painter.

In fact, Henry Cartier-Bresson often attributes his initial encounter with painting to his uncle Louis Cartier-Bresson, who was an excellent painter, killed in 1915. At Christmas 1913, Henry was taken to Louis's studio where he was introduced to the art world.

He attended the Ecole Fenelon ant the Lycee Condorcet in Paris before studying painting independently under two different masters. From 1922 to 1923 Bresson Studied under the Cubist painter Andre Lhote. During these years, he developed the visual training that would serve him as a framework for his later work as a photographer. Through his teachers he met artists, poets, and painters such as Gertude Stein, Max Jacob, Rene Crevel, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Max Ernest.

After Bresson completed his military service in 1929, he set of to Cameroon, West Africa and ended up staying on the Ivory Coast on the way back to Europe. The period spent there marked the first turning point in his life. The fact that he did not have particular great means, forced Cartier-Bresson to live off hunting and selling the meat in markets. After a one-year period he unfortunately caught a black-water fever and had to return to Europe.

After his return to France, he lost his desire to paint and bought his first Leica camera. Thus his real career as a photographer began in 1931.

Back in Paris he got to know Andre Berton, the surrealist's guru that powerfully influenced his work of 1932 to 1934. The contemporary movement known as surrealism, which encouraged artists and writers to explore the meaning that lay hidden below the surface of everyday life, offered photographers a way to reveal significance that would otherwise be invisible or lost.

Henry Cartier-Bresson extensively travelled throughout Eastern Europe; he visited Germany, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In 1933, he then set of to Provence, Italy and Spain where some wonderful pictures were taken. One example is the photo Alicante taken in Spain in 1933.


Alicante was one of Cartier-Bresson's very first pictures. Here he has surprised his models at their toilette. This photograph - a masterpiece of the grotesque – captures the viewer with its wealth of contradicting gestures and facial expressions.

In early 1934 Cartier-Bresson left Europe for Mexico, where he stayed for about a year and where his photographic work continued along the path he had already established.

He signed up as a member of a team of photographers on a government sponsored ethnographic expedition, which almost immediately collapsed, and the members separated, each going their on way. During his stay in Mexico City, Cartier-Bresson was based in one of the most degrading parts of the capital, near the Candelaria de los Patos and the Calle Chimalpopoca, a zone reserved for the underworld, and prostitution. The great majority of Cartier-Bresson's Mexican photos were done in this neighbourhood.



His photographs were an instant success with exhibitions in Madrid and New York.

In 1934 he left Mexico and went to America, where again he stayed for about a year. During the period Cartier-Bresson spent in New York, he almost stopped taking photographs and discovered a passion for films. He learned about motion pictures photography from Paul Strand. After that he worked as a camera assistant for Jacques Becker and Andre Zvoboda.

Upon returning to Paris at the end of 1935, Cartier-Bresson was hired by the director Jean Renoir. He occasionally made photographs for the communist newspaper Ce Soir, where he got to know the Polish photographers David Syzmin (later none as David Seymour) and his friend Andre Friedmann (later none as Robert Capa).

All three photographer got involved in the Spanish Civil War: Capa and Seymour took photographs, Cartier-Bresson shot the documentary film "La Victoire de la vie" about a Republican hospital. After the Spanish Civil War, World War II broke out. He joined the Army and soon after was captured by the Germans in 1940. In forced labour camp he had to shift cement ad built railway lines. After two failed attempts to escape, Cartier-Bresson succeeded on the third attempt and managed to get back to France.

In Paris he joined a photographic unit of the French Resistance that recorded the German occupation and retreat and during this time he took some of his most enigmatic portrait of French writers and artist: Albert Camus, Henri Matisse white doves and the freezing painter Pierre Bonnard.


After 1945 Cartier-Bresson once again turned to freelance photography. In 1946 he realised his earlier plan of travelling across the United States, and also returned to prepare an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


During this period Cartier-Bresson became cofounder of Magnum, the photo agency that took its name from the two litre bottles of Champagne. Magnum Photos was the first photo agency that provided photographs by top photographers working around the world and it soon became a prestigious and influential force in photojournalism.

In 1947 Henry Cartier-Bresson once again set off on a trip, his destination this time was the Far East, where he travelled for three years visiting India, Burma, Pakistan and China.


He was in China during the last six months of the Koumintang dictatorship, and the first six month of the Maoist Regime. It was while he was in China that Cartier-Bresson developed interested in Buddhism and a fascination with its approach to external reality. What greatly interested him was the Buddhist idea of disturbing nature as little as possible. It seemed to express an unformed direction in his photography of seeking to capture things "as they are".

In 1952 he was preparing retrospective book and wrote a number of essays, which have become known as "The Decisive Moment" . During his lifetime his travels took him to India, Burma, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Japan and the former USSR. He wrote many books illustrated with his photographs, among them Changing China and The World of Henry Cartier-Bresson (1980) .

From mid-1970s Cartier-Bresson turned away from photography and retuned to his original passion of painting and drawing. He described this turn as a kind of "test", but offered no further explanation. After a lifetime of developing his artistic vision through photography, he stated, all I care these days is painting - photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.

Has Henri Cartier-Bresson influenced your photography ?

Share your story and photos with us ...

[ ? ]

Upload 1-4 Pictures or Graphics (optional)[ ? ]


Click here to upload more images (optional)

Author Information (optional)

To receive credit as the author, enter your information below.

(first or full name)

(e.g., City, State, Country)

Submit Your Contribution

  •  submission guidelines.

(You can preview and edit on the next page)

Further Resources

H. Cartier-Bresson Books and Posters

Artist Website

Magnum Photo Agency

| Homepage | Masters of Photography |Digital Photography Basics |
|Basic Composition Techniques |Digital Camera Basics |Careers in Photography |Stock Photography |Infrared Photography |

Digital Photography Tips by and for photographers
Return to top