Prolific photographer Cartier-Bresson dies

Appreciation

August 05, 2004|By Edward J. Sozanski | Edward J. Sozanski,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most prolific, talented and influential photographers of the 20th century, has died in his native France at age 95.

Cartier-Bresson was a giant of the medium not only because he captured some of the most memorable images ever fixed to paper, but because his influence on other photographers, especially photojournalists, has been widespread and profound, and continues to this day.

From Mahatma Gandhi's funeral to portraits of William Faulkner or Chinese revolutionaries, Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer in photojournalism whose pictures defined the mid-20th century and inspired generations of photographers. Yet he was famously averse to having his own picture taken and in later years turned away from photography to the love of his youth, painting.

A statement from his family and Magnum, the photo agency that Cartier-Bresson co-founded, said he died Tuesday morning at his home in the southwestern Luberon region, and funeral services were held privately yesterday in the nearby Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region. A memorial service is planned for early next month, it said.

Cartier-Bresson will be remembered for pictures that record the thinnest, most ephemeral slices of everyday life, but that almost paradoxically, given the flow of ordinariness from which they were plucked, seem exceptionally insightful or startling, or both.

Cartier-Bresson described this quality, which he famously called "the decisive moment," as "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."

Anyone who has photographed knows how difficult it is to achieve the perfect picture. One must press the shutter at the precise miocrosecond when composition, gesture, expression, mood and light come together to perfect harmony.

Cartier-Bresson possessed an intuitive genius for anticipating that instant. It's revealed many times over in his earliest photographs from the 1930s - for example, in a striking image of a man leaping over a huge puddle behind a Paris railroad station, or a young boy strutting down a street carrying two bottles of wine, or four picnickers relaxing on the banks of the river Marne.

Such images will remain timeless, but they aren't the only evidence for Cartier-Bresson's impact on modern photography. He was instrumental in popularizing use of the compact 35mm camera, especially the light, relatively silent Leica. These cameras made the candid photojournalism that he practiced more feasible, not only because they were easy to carry but because they rendered the photographer less obtrusive. For that reason, he never used a flash attachment, but relied on available light.

Cartier-Bresson was essentially a photojournalist whose work was sometimes inflected with a noticeable surrealist sensibility - evident, for example, in a photo made in Spain in which the reflection of a man's face is juxtaposed illogically with a large numeral seven and a Vermeer-like figure.

Yet he was equally skilled as a portraitist: novelist William Faulkner and painter Henri Matisse are two of his more memorable subjects.

He photographed around the world, covered the Spanish Civil War and completed assignments for Life, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines.

Cartier-Bresson's career in photography didn't begin until about 1932, when he was recuperating in Marseille from a tropical disease contracted during an extended trip to Africa.

Initially, this son of a wealthy textile merchant, born Aug. 22, 1908, in Chanteloup, outside Paris, wanted to be a painter. He studied with the cubist Andre Lhote, but that career never developed. It wasn't until he picked up a Leica that he found his true vocation.

He was married twice - in 1937 to Ratna Mohini, a Japanese dancer, and in 1970 to Martine Franck. He and Franck had one daughter, Melanie. Both survive him.

Besides his considerable body of work, he will be remembered through his books, particularly The Decisive Moment, published in 1952, and two large retrospective exhibitions in the United States, in 1960 and 1979.

After he turned 70, Cartier-Bresson put down his cameras and went back to painting and drawing. He was skilled at both, but in neither medium did he achieve the celebration of small visual miracles one finds in his photographs.

The Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this article.

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