Legendary Photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, 95, Dies in France

Aug 4, 2004

PARIS, France - Henri Cartier-Bresson, 95, the legendary pillar of modern photojournalism who documented half a century of history by capturing it in iconic images that he called "decisive moments," one of the founding members of Magnum Photos who eventually put his camera down to return to his first love of drawing and painting, has died at his home in southern France.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson: The 'father of photojournalism,' Henri Cartier-Bresson, seen in 1972 in Forcalquier, the Alpes de Haute-Provence, France, has died in his home at the age of 95. Photograph © by Martine Franck/Magnum Photos.]

His family released a brief statement from Paris tonight: "The family of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, and the photographers and staff of Magnum Photos are sad to announce the death of Henri Cartier-Bresson on the 3rd of August at 9:30 a.m., in his house in the county of Luberon (France). His funeral was held in the strictest of privacy. A commemoration will be held in honor of his memory at the beginning of September." No other details were available.

"He was perhaps the greatest photographer of the 20th century. There will never be another Henri Cartier-Bresson," said photography editor John G. Morris, a lifelong personal friend of Cartier-Bresson and the author of Get The Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism. Cartier-Bresson inspired countless generations of photographers. His images in Life,VogueHarper's Bazaar, and hundreds of magazines and books are as much art as they are photographs. His images have been shown in the leading museums of the world and constituted the first-ever photographic exhibit at the Louvre.

Cartier-Bresson was born August 22, 1908, outside Paris to a wealthy family with a thriving textile business. The International Herald Tribune reports that in the early 1900s, "almost every French sewing kit was stocked with Cartier-Bresson thread." At 20, as the oldest child who was expected to carry on the family business, Cartier-Bresson abandoned the textiles to study art and painting. His interest in photography didn't blossom until 1930 when he traveled around central Europe taking pictures. His travel photographs appeared in several magazines and were followed by his first show in 1933 in Spain, after which his career as a photojournalist of significance took flight.

Using small Leica rangefinders, and usually 50mm lenses and black and white film and relying only on existing light, he captured scenes of simple daily street life and devastating global war, the faces of both the famous and the unknown. Working on big stories as well as showing life's smallest, nearly invisible details, he made pictures at the exact moment when all the elements of a scene or its peak action came into place, when an image had its greatest "significance" or, as he termed it, was at its most "decisive" moment.

In 2003 as Cartier-Bresson's 95th birthday approached, Morris wrote a tribute to him in "A Letter From Paris" forNews Photographer magazine. The two became friends in August 1944, just days after Paris was liberated from German occupation, and they remained friends for life, later working together at Magnum Photos where Morris was executive director and Cartier-Bresson one of the agency's founding photographers. Morris almost always fondly referred to his friend Cartier-Bresson as "HCB."

"I arrived in Paris from London, a stranger, to take charge of Life's Paris bureau," Morris remembered. "It was temporarily in a room in the Hotel Scribe. Robert Capa says: 'I have a friend who can help you. He speaks English and knows his way around. His name is Henri Cartier-Bresson.' I had never heard of him, but the next morning a slight, blue-eyed young man shows up at the door of the Scribe. We go off on foot, making the rounds of photographers and picture agencies, including Wide World, in the deserted New York Times office. Henri takes me home for a simple lunch, apologizing, 'We don't buy on the black market.' I learn that he had been living and photographing underground, after escaping from a German prison camp.'"

Serving in the French Army, Cartier-Bresson had been captured in 1940 during the Battle of France and was a German prisoner of war for three years, twice attempting escape before success on his third attempt. He returned to Paris and after the war resumed photography. In 1937 he married Ratna Mohini, a dancer. In 1947, along with Robert Capa and David Seymour, he cofounded Magnum Photos. And in 1970 he married Martine Franck. Together they had a daughter, Melanie.

Cartier-Bresson's landmark book was The Decisive Moment, published in 1952. In 1960 a 400-print exhibit toured the United States, and on April 28, 2003, the Bibliotheque Nationale's Grand Galerie opened the largest one-man show in its history, called "Henri Cartier-Bresson: De qui s'agit-il?" (Who is he?). Morris said, "Its five-pound 'catalogue,' published in French by Gallimard and in English by Thames and Hudson, reproduced the show's 602 items, not to mention listing his 109 books and catalogues, 800 picture stories in magazines and newspapers, 270 photo exhibitions, 38 exhibitions of his drawings, his 14 films, and the 11 films and 320 articles about him."

The next day, April 29, the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson opened with champagne at its newly refurbished five-story landmark building near the Gare Montparnasse. "Henri, as usual, tried to hide," Morris wrote afterwards. Cartier-Bresson strongly disliked being photographed and rarely granted interviews. Morris said, "The Foundation was the housekeeping solution of Henri's wife, Magnum photographer Martine Franck, for disposing of Henri's treasures of a lifetime -- 'He never throws anything away.'" Morris said, "HCB agreed to the Foundation on condition that the building be 'neither a museum nor a mausoleum.'"

Then, when Cartier-Bresson's expertise and fame were near its peak, he put down his camera. After photographing French President General Charles de Gaulle's funeral in 1970, Cartier-Bresson visited Morris in New York City. Morris was the photography editor of The New York Times in those days, and he arranged a dinner with newspaper's photography staff. "I did not realize it at the time, but just about then two things occurred that would change Henri's future," Morris wrote. "He had fallen in love with Martine Franck, then a photographer with Visa. And he had experienced a rebirth of his previous passion, to be an 'artist.' To him this meant sketching and painting. The two occurrences were not unrelated; one photographer in a family is normally enough, and Martine is very talented."

"Henri found a further excuse to quit photography in the advice of his longtime friend Teriade, publisher of The Decisive Moment, who told him that he had done everything that could be done in photography," Morris recalled. "Teriade was partly right. From the standpoint of style, Henri had scarcely deviated from his earliest work. But from the point of view of content, Teriade unfortunately proposed that Henri turn his back on the balance of the 20th century. History was the loser. However, thanks to Robert Delpire, who became Henri's editor, his pre-1970 work took the form of an unparalleled photographic commentary on our times."

Morris remembers warning Cartier-Bresson once, after critics reviewed his artwork without mentioning his earlier photographs, "If you're not careful, you're going to go down in history as a painter, not as a photographer." Morris said Cartier-Bresson replied, "I'm just a jack of all trades."

It was well known that Cartier-Bresson did not want his photographs to be cropped by picture editors. John Morris remembers, "At Magnum there were two rubber stamps used on Henri's press prints. One said that the photo should not be altered by cropping; the other said that the photograph should not be used in a way that violates the context in which it is taken. One stamp for BEAUTY, of form; one stamp for TRUTH."

Michael Evans was a staff photographer at The New York Times when Morris was the picture editor and was working there when Morris once convinced Cartier-Bresson to take a Times photography assignment for a "second front" feature -- a story that leads the second section's front page. "Morris worked with Cartier-Bresson on the final image, and the page was all laid out and there were strict orders left with the desk not to crop the image under any circumstances," Evans remembers. "Well, of course something happened, and the page got changed, and the image got cropped. And Henri went ballistic."

Trying to deal with the incident, Evans remembers, Morris went in and met with the newspaper's executive editor, Abe Rosenthal. "John said something to the effect of, 'We've got a problem, Henri's picture was cropped,'" Evans said, "and Rosenthal said, 'Well who the (expletive) is Henri Cartier-Bresson?' Then later Henri, in his exceptional French/English, responded in a similar fashion, 'Who the (expletive) is Abe Rosenthal?' I think it was the last assignment Cartier-Bresson shot for the Times," Evans said with a laugh.

Cartier-Bresson is survived by his wife, Martine Franck, and their daughter, Melanie.