There are birthplaces that can fashion a way of looking, that can shape an artist. It is fair to say that France provided a privileged testing ground for the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would become. Born in Chateloup-en-Brie, young Henry graduated from lycée in Paris, before deciding to pursue art and refusing to take over the family business as his father had wished. Initially, he wanted to paint, and studied under André Lhote in the Rue d’Odessa in the Montparnasse neighborhood. Around that time, he met the writer René Crevel who introduced him to the American couple, Harry and Caresse Crosby, advocates of avant-garde art. He also discovered the images of Eugène Atget and André Kertesz.
“The mirror of memory”
It wasn’t until his military service, which took him to Africa, that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s interest in photography took on a concrete form. During his deployment, which marked a break with his home environment, he fell gravely ill; he also used his camera constantly. Upon his return to France, in the spring of 1931, he stumbled across a photograph that would mark him for life: it was an image by Martin Munkácsi showing three black boys charging into the surf. “I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks,” recalled Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1932, the budding photographer acquired his first Leica. As he beautifully put it, the camera was to him “a sketchbook, a psychoanalyst’s couch, a machine gun, a big, hot kiss, an electromagnet, a memory, the mirror of memory.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson thus embarked on his life’s work. He began experimenting with photography by capturing passersby going about their day, the routine of daily life in France. He depicted Parisian landscapes and some astonishing sights, like the man who set up a tent on the side of his car and whom Cartier-Bresson caught by surprise in a private moment. Or the photograph of a cyclist speeding down the Rue D’Hyères in 1932 and turning the corner just as the photographer stood poised on top of a staircase… Or yet the self-portrait in which Cartier-Bresson plays with the mirror reflection and which foreshadows his aesthetic preoccupations and his exploration of the image from all angles.
In the mid-1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson travelled across Europe, had two exhibitions in New York, and visited Mexico. These enriching journeys allowed him to develop close relationships with other artists, such as the writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues and the filmmaker and photographer Paul Strand. In 1936, Cartier-Bresson returned to France. He got in touch with Jean Renoir and showed him a portfolio of his best photographs. He was soon hired as one of Renoir’s assistants and worked on several of his film sets. During his collaboration with the film director, Cartier-Bresson got involved with communists just as France was undergoing major policy changes that brought about social reforms, including paid holidays. The photographer joined the Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires (AEAR), and contributed news reports to the magazine Regards.
The artist had now truly come into his own and began finding new subjects that would define his signature style. These included flâneurs on the banks of the Seine flocking to their weekend paradise. Henri Cartier-Bresson immortalized this “dolce vita” in sweet, happy tableaus featuring Sunday strollers newly benefiting from their paid holidays. These touching images bear witness to sparks of joy on the eve of the Second World War. We feel Henri Cartier-Bresson delighted in photographing people enjoying themselves, and his capacity for joie de vivre would stay with him for the rest of his life.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Henri Cartier-Bresson in France, 1926–1938
February 26 to June 2, 2019
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 76 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris