The Deciding Moment

A newly published scrapbook of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s early photographs is changing some notions about how he worked

"Watch out for labels," Robert Capa once told his friend and fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). "They're going to stick you with one you won't get rid of: that of a little Surrealist photographer. You're going to be lost, you'll become precious and mannered."

That was in 1947, the year that Capa, Cartier-Bresson and some other photojournalists founded the photo agency Magnum. Capa was half right. Cartier-Bresson did get stuck with a label: not "little Surrealist photographer" but "photographer of the decisive moment." Since 1952 and the publication of his book of photographs The Decisive Moment, his name has conjured up unerring vision and hair-trigger timing.

If you want to see Cartier-Bresson when he was still indecisive—about what to print, what to show and what to save—look at the scrapbook he put together in 1946, now reconstructed and published as Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook, Photographs 1932-1946. It contains multiple versions of many of his iconic photographs. And there's a great story behind it.

In 1940, the Germans took French Army corporal Henri Cartier-Bresson prisoner. By 1942, he was presumed dead, and the Museum of Modern Art was planning a memorial retrospective. He was already famous, having taken many of the shots he's still known for today: puddle jumper at railway station, prostitutes filing their nails, cyclist blurring by a spiral stair.

But Cartier-Bresson was not dead. He escaped in 1943, dug up the Leica camera he had buried in the Vosges Mountains, and was soon working as a photographer and filmmaker in France. In 1945 he got in touch with MOMA curators Beaumont and Nancy Newhall to help out with the "memorial" show.

He printed 346 of his photographs, all roughly index-card size; pasted them onto sheets of paper, eight or so to a page; and put them in a scrapbook for the Newhalls to select from. He included not only the old photos that the curators knew but also new ones.

"The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson," the MOMA show, opened with 163 prints in February 1947, and the scrapbook was packed away. It ended up on a shelf until one day in the late 1980s, when Martine Franck, Cartier-Bresson's wife, found him "ripping out the photos" to preserve them. She stopped him, but only a few pages were left.

From the reconstructed book, it's clear that Cartier-Bresson didn't just point and decisively shoot. He found promising settings, lay in wait and took many shots, both vertical and horizontal.

So did his decisiveness lie in his famously ruthless selection of a single shot from each campaign? "When the war came," he once said, "I went through my negatives and destroyed almost everything, except what's left in The Decisive Moment." He did it, he said, "the way you cut your fingernails."

Apparently, though, it was not that simple. The scrapbook reveals a stage between his shooting and printing of multiple images of the same subjects (1931-46) and his choosing one of each subject for The Decisive Moment. It might be called The I-can't-quite-decide-which-image-looks-more-decisive Moment.

What lay behind all this obsessive selecting?

Consider the 1933 picture, taken in Valencia, Spain, of swinging doors at what seems to be a sports arena. If you compare the two images that Cartier-Bresson put in his scrapbook, presumably his favorites, with the five he rejected (included in the new volume but unavailable for magazine publication), you will see that he picked the two hardest to grasp. Both of his favorites show a bodyless head wearing cap and spectacles, half-blinded by light, floating just to the right of a fragment of the number 7. In the background, a tiny, blurry figure appears to be leaving the scene. Though the two figures are next to each other in the frame, they share neither scale nor story.

Now, the outtakes: they are as symmetrical as a dollar bill, and they make both dramatic and spatial sense. Smack in the middle of the frame is the wooden door of the arena, with the number 7 painted on it. As people come and go through the door, the 7 on the door splits, like a camera's shutter. On either side of this door, spectators peer out from rectangular windows. On the right there's the capped bespectacled head, and on the left, a slack-jawed boy following the event—maybe a bullfight.

There is more than a little irony here. In 1946, the year before helping to found Magnum—a photojournalism agency—Cartier-Bresson was rejecting the documentary shot in favor of the confounding image. He preferred the Valencia photographs from which all helpful context had been stripped, leaving only a puzzle about blindness and sight. En route to the title "photographer of the decisive moment," he was actually chasing the very label that Capa would warn him against: "little Surrealist." Ah, well.

Sarah Boxer is the author of In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.