Caught in a Trap: A Tribute to Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Before the age of television, the work of photographers was often the only source of visual information to a public hungry for news. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died recently at the age of 96, was part of the first generation of photojournalists.

Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy French family, but he was always a radical left winger and rebel. This informed his photography and the emphasis that he placed on recording aspects of ordinary people's lives, setting the standards for, and being hugely influential on, future photojournalists.

He initially trained as a painter and was influenced by surrealism, impressed by what he described as a 'revolt against bourgeois conventions'. He first began taking photos at 22 when, 'fed up of the white world', he travelled around Africa. On his return he purchased his first Leica camera and began to explore photography on the streets.

In the early 1930s he travelled through Italy, Spain and Mexico, living rough and developing his eye for street photography. The advent of small, quiet and inconspicuous hand-held cameras meant he could take pictures quickly, without intruding on or influencing the people and situation. He took photographs of children playing in rubble, men sleeping in the park, taxi drivers waiting for work - anyone or anything that caught his eye. He described how 'I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to "trap" life - to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.' On returning to Paris he got involved with left wing groups and newspapers, and through this he met David Seymour (Chim) and Robert Capa with whom, along with George Rodger, he would later form the Magnum photo agency.

The background of the growth of fascism across Europe, the threat of war and the resistance that followed had a formative influence on Cartier-Bresson. When he got together with other photographers they discussed fascism, communism, the popular front and Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia. 'We never, never talked about photography. Never! It would have been monstrous, presumptuous! We were all left wing... I was an adventurer.'

Small cameras enabled news photography to really take off. Cartier-Bresson and his friends were able to capture the unfolding events of street demonstrations and rallies. The photostory began to be the staple of big circulation news magazines to meet the public's growing demand for visual news.

He was also interested in films, working with Jean Renoir on a propaganda film for the Communist Party which denounced 200 wealthy French families including Cartier-Bresson's own. When the Spanish Civil War began, he directed his own documentary.

Cartier-Bresson joined the Film and Photo Unit of the French army during the Second World War. He was captured, and after three years as a prisoner of war he escaped and joined a resistance group in Paris. To avoid the attentions of the Gestapo he would pose as an absent minded painter while working underground to record the Nazi occupation and the following liberation.

Cartier-Bresson co-founded Magnum as a co-operative agency run by photographers for photographers in 1947. The intention was to give photographers the independence to work on what they wanted, and not be at the mercy of magazines and newspapers that could misrepresent or censor their work. They could also keep the rights of their images, something previously unheard of.

Cartier-Bresson went on to travel and photograph in India, Russia, China and Europe. He documented the fall of the Guomindang, the death of Gandhi and the revolt in Paris in May 1968. His documentation of historic events was astounding, as he was more likely to turn his camera to the crowds and ordinary individuals than on the showcase event. At the coronation of George VI he photographed a man asleep in Trafalgar Square rather than the royal procession.

During later life Cartier-Bresson returned to his passion of painting but continued to be involved with the debates about photography. He campaigned to keep Magnum on its original course, and was against commercial and advertising photography. He recognised that he was criticised for being too 'classic'. Some have even seen his photography as being too sentimental. But for Cartier-Bresson it was important to chronicle the lives of ordinary people. He saw photography as a way of 'connecting humanity' - bringing together people's common experience and understanding by recording daily ordinary life. As one of the first photographers from the West to enter the Soviet Union in 1954, his pictures of Russian workers showed that on the other side of the Iron Curtain people were not as alien as Westerners were led to believe. He commented that he had photographed both the famous and the not famous, but they were all the same, all human beings. He said, 'Using a camera is like keeping a diary - a visual diary.' He wanted to record all events, whether they were tragic or beautiful, sometimes with humour but always with honesty, and with respect and a humanistic approach.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography, and his own commitment in encouraging young photographers, has left a great legacy. He showed that photography was not just about recording history and celebrity from the point of view of the rich and famous, but about ordinary people the world over.