Magic Moments

A new book and a Paris arts center pay homage to photography’s elusive 95-year-old grand master

"I have no interest in photography," insists Henri Cartier-Bresson, 95, one of the founders of modern photojournalism. But this year would seem to prove him wrong: the Bibliothèque Nationale de France gave him a huge retrospective, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, a center for the study and display of works by Cartier-Bresson and other artists, opened in Paris, and Thames & Hudson published what it claims to be the definitive book on his career, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image & the World, a Retrospective.

Cartier-Bresson's place in history—as a documentary photographer with a boxer's timing and an artist's eye—was well set more than 50 years ago when he himself defined the perfect time to shoot a photograph as "the decisive moment," the instant a photographer recognizes the "significance of an event" as well as a "precise organization of forms."

Consider Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, taken in Paris in 1932. A man has launched both himself and his reflection from a wooden ladder lying flat in a puddle in the railroad yard. What is he aiming for? In the next instant this strange double shape, man and mirror image, will certainly be destroyed in the splash. Still, the photograph has suspense. The man is about to be wet for all eternity.

Cartier-Bresson's instinct for the instantaneous, for catching life "in flagrante delicto," as he described it, is only part of his famous decisiveness. His life is also a study in impulse and resolve. Born in 1908 in Chanteloup, Seine-et-Marne, France, the eldest son of a well-to-do family, Cartier-Bresson avoided the family business, textiles, to study painting with André Lhote. In 1931, he set out for Africa's Côte d'Ivoire, where he took his first photographs.

Since then, Cartier-Bresson has taken some 15,000 rolls of black-and-white film. He was in France for the liberation of Paris, with Gandhi in India only hours before his assassination, in China for the rise of Mao, in post-Stalinist Russia before any other foreign photographer. He has found his way into the studios of Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Alberto Giacometti and the homes of William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound.

Although Cartier-Bresson's work has appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and Harper's Bazaar, it plays just as well on museum walls. In 1947, the year Cartier-Bresson founded the cooperative photo agency Magnum with fellow war photographers Robert Capa, George Rodger, David Seymour and William Vandivert, he was also given a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Cartier-Bresson's formal rigor and lyricism, as critic Andy Grundberg once pointed out in the New York Times, have been "almost universally admired in the museum world, where he is viewed as an important influence on Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and other postwar 'street' photographers."

But Cartier-Bresson did not start out as a photographer and, curiously, has said he does not want to end up as one. After studying painting, he had a brief film career, serving as an assistant director on Jean Renoir's films Une partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) and La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game). He also directed five documentary films. These days he prefers drawing to photography. "Drawing is meditation," he told the New York Times in 1994. "Today, everyone talks about photography, but how many that I did can you look at for more than three seconds?"

Why, then, is he noted only for his photographs? A sequence from his 1945 documentary Le Retour, about war prisoners resuming their lives, hints at an answer. In the film, a woman in Dessau, Germany, who has just been released from a concentration camp, slugs the woman who betrayed her to the Gestapo. You see the punch and the recoil. The action is shocking, yes, but it does not measure up to Cartier-Bresson's photograph of the same event. Why? The reason is surprising. In the still, you can't tell whether the prisoner in the black dress is preparing to hit her betrayer or is just confronting her. The image is not decisive but rather highly ambiguous.

Indecisiveness, in fact, is a hallmark of many classic Cartier-Bresson shots. They are beautifully, even obsessively, composed, yet when it comes to pinpointing what is going on, psychologically or even factually, they seldom yield. In a photograph taken in Alicante, Spain, in 1933, a trio of people of ambiguous sexual inclination is engaged in some kind of mutual grooming. They eye the camera suspiciously. Or is it playfully? In the great 1946 portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre on a bridge in Paris, is the philosopher's walleyed gaze registering skepticism? Or is his eye just drifting? It is this uncertainty that allows the picture to function as an icon of postwar anxiety.

Robert Delpire, director of the Cartier-Bresson foundation, says the photographer's favorite question is, "De quoi s'agit-il?" ("What are we dealing with?") In 1947, Lincoln Kirstein, an arts patron and writer, described Cartier-Bresson's work as "intense and questioning." Could it be that Cartier-Bresson oversold the idea of the "decisive moment?"

These days, he scorns photography, although his wife, Martine Franck, is a photographer and he still, occasionally, takes pictures. He has said he has always thought of photography as "accelerated drawing." Maybe Cartier-Bresson would like photography better if it could be slowed down, made into something more meditative and exploratory, something more like drawing, something less...decisive. But isn't that what his photographs have always been?

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.