Great European of the Week: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Born August 22, 1908, Henri Cartier-Bresson was an artist contributing greatly to the role of photography in our European culture. His talent and work around the world helped to establish photojournalism as an art form.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1989.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1989.

Today cameras are everywhere. It is an essential item for any traveller, from all-exclusive hotel tourist to the into-the-wild adventurer. Around 1800 the development of photography began, while only 1826 the first surviving permanent photograph was formed. But soon after photography spread quickly around the world and enabled us to capture moments of our culture, our history and our life.

In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Finishing his education in art and literature at Cambridge University, his talent, timing and perspective made him soon a famous photographer, with exhibitions in Mexico, New York and Madrid in the early 1930ies. His passion for photography was interrupted by the World War II when he served in the French army and got captured as prison-of-war by Germans. Cartier-Bresson was able to escape, and returned to photography now under a political motive supporting the resistance. He made a documentary about the return of French prisoners after the war.
He was a curious traveller and did not hesitate to explore the world outside Europe. In India he met Mahatma Gandhi and was able to observe the death of Gandhi and its effect on the country. The result was one of Life Magazine’s most prized photo essay. To contribute further to the establishment of photojournalism as news and art form he and his team founded the first photo agency Magnum Photos.
Cartier-Bresson has been described as an artist with passion and wanderlust at heart. So he went on a three year journey around Asia. As photographer with his camera, a Leica, he experienced the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese revolution, George VI’s coronation and Khrushchev’s Russia and photographed Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe, among others. He published his first book The Decisive Moment, a rich collection of triumph and tragedy in all forms.

Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a mediation.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

He also developed interest for film, particular for documentaries during his assistantship with Jean Renoir. He directed several documentaries, although he preferred photography. In his life he has travelled to Africa, Spain, Mexico, USA, India, China, Indonesia, USSR, Japan and Italy. This explorer like drive to travel and to follow his passion is remarkable considering this happened during the Cold War. One example is that he was the first photographer in 1954 to be allowed into the USSR during the period of détente. From 1974 onwards he led a private life and followed his passion for drawing and painting, while receiving prizes and honours for his various international exhibitions. By 2003 his family founded the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation as permanent home for his collected work as well as exhibition space for other artists.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, is widely regarded as one of the great photographers of the 20th century. He is PDU’s Great European of the Week for his contribution to Europe’s culture of seeing that spread around the world!

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