A master's flash

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the man who turned photography into an art form, was "determined to trap life, to preserve life in the act of living."

Published August 5, 2004 1:30PM (EDT)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, universally acknowledged as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, was buried yesterday, two days after his unannounced death at home in the south of France. He was 95.

"He had not been eating for several days. He grew gradually weaker," a family member told reporters from the photographer's summer home in the village of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Cartier-Bresson, who gave up photography 30 years ago for his first love, painting and drawing, was the creator of 700,000 black-and-white photographs. He abhorred artificial lighting, including flash, never used a wide-angle lens, and never cropped his prints.

A co-founder of the legendary Magnum photo agency, along with Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger, he is seen today as the leader of that generation of photographers who succeeded in elevating what was until then a hobby, or at most a jobbing profession, into an art form.

Among his most famous images, many of them on display at the foundation bearing his name that was opened in Paris last year, are the moustachioed, bowler-hatted man caught peeping through the canvas surround at a sports event in Brussels in 1932; a female prisoner denouncing a Gestapo informer in 1945; a boyish Truman Capote in 1947; and children playing on the Berlin wall in 1962.

As a photojournalist, he had an astonishing ability to be in the right place at the right time: among the 1,000 original prints, as well as contact sheets, films, manuscripts and correspondence, at the foundation are shots taken during civil wars in Spain and Mexico, the communist revolution in China and at the death of Mahatma Gandhi in India.

He was also a gifted portraitist, counting Jean-Paul Sartre, Carson McCullers, Bar bara Hepworth, Henri Matisse, Edith Piaf and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor among the famous names who sat for him. In 1954, he was the first western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin the previous year.

Born in 1908, the son of a wealthy industrialist from Chanteloup, east of Paris, Cartier-Bresson took up photography in the 1930s: his first Leica ("an extension of my eye"), bought in 1932, was intended merely as an aid to his art. Much later he returned to this view, dismissing photography as "un truc micanique" - a mechanical thing - and spending most of his time after 1974 drawing and copying paintings in Paris art galleries.

But Cartier-Bresson's studies on design and proportion under the painter Andre Lhote, in the 1920s, proved fundamental to his photographic philosophy, as did his work on surrealism, a movement then at its height.

From these two roots gradually grew his definition of what makes an exceptional image, the "decisive moment" -- the name given to a major collection of his work in 1952. The "decisive moment," he said, was "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression."

Using one of the unobtrusive, fast-shooting cameras that became available from the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson began his hunt for the arresting image, setting the standard for every photojournalist who followed. He was, in his words, "prowling the streets ... determined to trap life, to preserve life in the act of living."

Before the war he worked in eastern Europe, Spain and Mexico, and was assistant to the director Jean Renoir on a number of films. Cartier-Bresson was imprisoned by the Germans in 1940, but escaped three years later and witnessed the liberation of Paris.

Cartier-Bresson would never nominate a favourite photograph of his own. But in a 2003 exhibition of his favourite works by others, pride of place went to a 1931 snap by the Hungarian Martin Munkacsi, portraying African boys playing in Lake Tanganyika.

"When I saw that photograph of Munkacsi, of the black kids running in a wave, I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera," he said. "I said damn it, I took my camera, and I went out into the street."

By Jon Henley

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