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Photographer Found Timeless Art in Everyday Life

August 05, 2004|Mary Rourke and Iris Schneider | Times Staff Writers

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Frenchman who raised photojournalism to an art form with the use of a small hand-held camera and a vision that photography should capture what he called "the decisive moment," has died. He was 95.

Cartier-Bresson died Tuesday at his home in Provence, according to his family, who provided no details on the cause of death. He was buried Wednesday.

"With him, France loses a genius photographer, a true master, and one of the most gifted artists of his generation and most respected in the world. An essential witness of his time, he photographed the 20th century with passion, immortalizing with his universal vision the movement of men and civilizations," French President Jacques Chirac said in a statement.

"Henri Cartier-Bresson was a giant," said Robert Sobieszek, chief curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "He did for photography what Picasso did for painting. He invented a form that we now call street photography. Without him, it wouldn't exist. He changed the way we see photographs."

From his earliest days as a working photographer, Cartier-Bresson traveled the world on assignment for European and American magazines, including Look, Life and Paris Match. He had a knack for being in the right part of the world just as history was unfolding. He said his intention was to "trap" life and preserve it in the act of being lived.

To achieve this he relied on a simple Leica camera as his main tool. In India, Cartier-Bresson photographed Mohandas K. Gandhi an hour before his assassination, and he stayed to cover the funeral. In 1954, he was among the first Western photographers to record Soviet society after the death of dictator Josef Stalin and the end of his brutal rule.

"Of all forms of expression," Cartier-Bresson noted in his book "The Decisive Moment" (1952), "photography is the only one which seizes the instant in its flight. We look for the evanescent, the irreplaceable; that is our constant concern."

He also wrote, "To take photographs is to hold one's breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeting reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy."

And few did it as well as Cartier-Bresson.

"To capture the decisive moment, the nanosecond when things coalesce for the perfect image, is an art. It is a talent that very few people have," Sobieszek said. "You have to anticipate, and push the button a fraction of a second before it happens. You have to photograph the future."

During his decades-long career as a working photographer, Cartier-Bresson repeatedly crossed the divide between art and photojournalism. From 1947, when he and colleagues Robert Capa, George Rodger, William Vandivert and David Seymour, known as "Chim," founded the Magnum agency for photojournalists, he helped raise the status of the profession. Magnum quickly earned a reputation as an elite operation whose members ranked among the most talented in the business.

But even as he helped build photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson insisted that he was first of all an artist. His work was exhibited in museums from Madrid to Mexico City. One of his first shows was a joint exhibition with the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez-Bravo in Mexico City in 1934.

The same year that he helped found Magnum, Cartier-Bresson attended the opening of his first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Seven years later, in 1954, curators at the Louvre in Paris broke precedent and gave him the museum's first exhibition by a single living photographer.

He was the author of numerous books, and his works were published in "Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer" (1979), edited by Robert Delpire.

He never felt quite comfortable with his dual identity as an art photographer and photojournalist.

"I am not a journalist," he said in 1975. "I simply sniff around and take the temperature of a place." In Spain, France, Mexico, China and the American South, he took photographs of flea markets, ghettos, city centers and the people who roamed them.

Often the comic and surreal aspects of daily life caught his attention: grandfathers dressed in spats and bowler hats, streetwalkers whose breasts were pouring out of their tight bodices, businessmen in identical tweed caps, ghetto children playing naked in the street.

"I prowled the streets all day," he wrote of his way of working. "I craved to seize the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes."

"He had a sense of bemusement about the human condition," Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, said in an interview with The Times. "He left us a catalog of human foibles and oddities, in a world that is a benign place."

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