Henri Cartier-Bresson Biography

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a renowned French photographer, had a deep passion for the arts from a young age. Starting with a Box Brownie camera, he later upgraded to a Leica camera with a 50 mm lens. After attending the Lhote Academy and studying at the University of Cambridge, he served in the French Army during World War II. Despite being captured by German soldiers and spending over three years in prisoner-of-war camps, Cartier-Bresson’s determination never wavered. He captured significant moments such as the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and had the opportunity to work alongside esteemed photographers like David “Chim” Seymour and Robert Capa. His travels took him to India, where he photographed Mahatma Gandhi shortly before his assassination, and to China, where he documented the Chinese Civil War. Cartier-Bresson’s work extended to the post-war Soviet Union, making him the first Western photographer to capture images “freely” in the country. To preserve and share his remarkable legacy, he founded the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation with his wife and daughter.

Quick Facts

  • French Celebrities Born In August Died At Age: 95
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Ratna Mohini, children: Mélanie
  • Quotes By Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Atheists
  • Died on: August 3, 2004, place of death: Montjustin, France
  • More Facts
  • Education: École Fénelon, Lycée Condorcet
  • Awards:
    • 1948 – Overseas Press Club of America Award
    • 1953 – The A.S.M.P. Award
    • 1954 – Overseas Press Club of America Award
    • 1959 – The Prix de la Société française de photographie
    • 1960 – Overseas Press Club of America Award
    • 1964 – Overseas Press Club of America Award
    • 1974 – The Culture Prize Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie
    • 1981 – Grand Prix National de la Photographie
    • 1982 – Hasselblad Award
    • 2006 – Prix Nadar for the photobook Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook

Childhood & Early Life

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne, France, on August 22, 1908. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, while his mother’s family were cotton merchants and landowners from Normandy. Young Henri owned a Box Brownie that he used for taking holiday snapshots. He later experimented with a 3×4 inch view camera. His parents raised him in traditional French bourgeois fashion. He attended École Fénelon, a Catholic school. His uncle Louis introduced him to oil painting. The painting lessons were cut short when his uncle died in World War I.

Career and Later Life

In 1927, Cartier-Bresson entered Lhote Academy, the studio of Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote in Paris. He studied classical artists and contemporary art. He also studied painting with portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche. From 1928 to 1929, Cartier-Bresson attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied English, art and literature, and became bilingual. He then completed his mandatory service in the French Army, stationed at Le Bourget. In 1929, his air squadron commandant placed him under house arrest for hunting without a license. American expatriate Harry Crosby persuaded the officer to release Cartier-Bresson into his custody. They spent time taking and printing pictures. He went to Côte d’Ivoire in French colonial Africa, where he survived by shooting and selling game. He took a portable camera, but only seven photographs survived the tropics. He returned to France in late 1931 and deepened his relationship with the Surrealists. The photographs taken by Hungarian photojournalist Martin Munkacsi inspired him to take up photography seriously. He acquired a Leica camera with a 50 mm lens in Marseilles. To maintain anonymity and overcome the formal and unnatural behavior of his subjects, he painted its shiny parts with black paint. He photographed various cities including Berlin, Brussels, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, and Madrid. His first photograph exhibition was at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, and subsequently at the Ateneo Club in Madrid. He met photographers David “Chim” Seymour and Robert Capa, and they shared a studio. Capa mentored Cartier-Bresson. In 1935, he traveled to the US to exhibit his work at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery. He returned to France and approached Jean Renoir. He acted in Renoir’s “Partie de champagne” and “La Règle du jeu”. He also helped Renoir make a film on the 200 families who ran France.

Awards & Achievements

Cartier-Bresson won the Overseas Press Club of America Award four times from 1948 to 1964. Other awards during that time include The A.S.M.P. Award and The Prix de la Société française de photographie. From 1974 to 2006, he was awarded The Culture Prize, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, Grand Prix National de la Photographie, Hasselblad Award, and Prix Nadar for the photobook Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1929, Cartier-Bresson embraced the open sexuality offered by Crosby and his wife Caresse. He had an intense sexual relationship with her, which ended in heartbreak two years after Crosby committed suicide. In 1937, he married Javanese dancer Ratna Mohini, but they divorced after 30 years of married life. Three years later, he married Magnum photographer Martine Franck, and they had a daughter named Mélanie. In 2003, he created the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation with his wife and daughter to preserve and share his legacy. He died in Montjustin, France, on August 3, 2003, and was buried in the local cemetery.

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