Henri Cartier-Bresson, who revolutionized photography as an art and a reporting tool by capturing what he called “the decisive moment,” died Tuesday in l’Ile-sur-Sorgue in the rural Vaucluse region in southeastern France. No cause of death was provided for Cartier-Bresson, who was 95.
The French Culture Ministry announced the death on Wednesday.
Whether snapping pictures of French resistance fighters and Gestapo informers during World War II, the assassination of Gandhi, a grizzled eunuch during the Communist revolution in China or a slew of celebrities, Cartier-Bresson was the epitome of the photographer who was at the right place at the right time – all the time.
In photography, you’ve got to be quick, quick, quick, quick,” he once said. “Like an animal and a prey.”
His images, mostly taken with a 35 mm Leica perpetually dangling from his neck, were alive with playful shadows and rich geometric patterns based on his early interest in surrealism. He called himself a painter at heart, and the beauty of his shots was heightened by the fact that he never posed or planned them, or later cropped them. Each caught the drama, wit or joy of the immediate, or “decisive,” moment.
With a productivity matched by the haunting grandeur of his pictures, Cartier-Bresson was a founder of Magnum Photos, a co-operative photojournalism agency based in New York and Paris. He was the subject, in 1954, of the Louvre’s first exhibit of photography, had exhibits at all the world’s major galleries and compiled his work in acclaimed books that showcased his travels.
“No photographer alive has a more secure position in the history of art than Henri Cartier-Bresson – esthete, man of action, artist and reporter,” Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote in 1981.
During his career, Cartier-Bresson also worked as a filmmaker. He was Jean Renoir’s assistant director in the mid-1930s and later directed his own documentary, in 1945, about weary French refugees returning to their homeland after World War II.
Cartier-Bresson, thin, wiry and slightly aloof, was long regarded as one of the art world’s most unassuming personalities. He disliked self-aggrandizing publicity and exhibited a ferocious shyness since his days in hiding from the Nazis during World War II.
Likewise, he never used his camera to intrude on moments he considered too private for others. That contributed to winning cooperation from such people as William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, each captured in rare moments of unguardedness.
He dismissed those applying the term “art” to his pictures. They were just gut reactions to moments he happened on.
“Bow, arrow, goal and ego melt into one another,” he once said. “As soon as I take a bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and ridiculously simple.”