I wrote the other day about the decisive moment and mentioned the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who made great use of the term and concept in his work. I am a fan of his work. It would be hard to not find something in his work that draws you in. Many are simply great images with superb composition and an artistic rhythm running through them, showing the influence of his early training as a painter. Some are mysterious and enigmatic, making you stop and just wonder what exactly was the story behind the photo, such as the image shown above of a sun bather along the Neva River in 1973 Leningrad . And many capture defining moments in the 20th century, moments of history and change.
Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 and witnessed nearly a century of such moments, his death coming in 2004. He lived through both World Wars in Europe. He fought in the second war and was a POW for nearly three years until he escaped and continued the war serving with the French underground resistance. The photo here on the left is from 1945 showing a Gestapo collaborator being confronted in the aftermath of the war. He traveled around the world at important moments, capturing the people on the street as change was taking place. His photo of people in 1948 China in a crushing line to get gold allotted to them by the government as it teetered on the brink before finally falling to Communism. Ten people were killed in the crush of this line. In that same year, 1948, Cartier-Bresson also met Mahatma Gandhi. He was one of the last people to meet Gandhi and his photos, taken a mere hour before he was shot and killed, are the last photos of him while alive. Again,decisive moments.
As I said, there’s a lot in his body of work, something for everyone. He is considered the grandfather of modern photojournalism, making the move from clumsy large format cameras to the more portable 35mm that allowed greater spontaneity and mobility. It brought the immediacy of the moment on the street to film.
Something I find interesting about his grand life is that he hung up his camera almost thirty years before his death and spent his final decades at his first love, drawing and painting. Just an amazing life, a witness to a world at the most decisive moments of the time.