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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Paris hails master of photography

By Hugh Schofield
Paris

He is a little hard of hearing now, and walking is not as easy as it was. But the look is sharp. The eye is clear. And he is still taking photographs.

Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and some of his favourite images taken by others

It is hard to believe but true: Henri Cartier-Bresson began taking photographs during World War I.

There is a picture of him aged about 10 surrounded by family-members in Edwardian-style clothes. He is clutching a Box Brownie.

Eighty-five years later, one of the most influential image-makers of the 20th Century - a man who can truly be said to have helped define an art-form - is still with us, and still looking through the shutter.

This month Cartier-Bresson, who turns 95 in August, is triply celebrated with a major exhibition in Paris, the opening of a foundation bearing his name and the launch of an annual photography prize in his honour.

Revelation

The exhibition, entitled "De qui s'agit-il?" - Who is it about? - is a look back at his extraordinary career through some of his most famous pictures, as well as informal shots of himself, drawings and momentoes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

"We did not want to show only his best pictures, but rather the course he took through life," said curator Robert Delpire.

So on display is the classic shot - commonly to be found on sale in France on posters and post-cards - of the moustachioed bowler-hatted man caught peeking through the canvas surround of a sporting event in 1932.

There is the furious glee of the woman denouncing a Gestapo informer at the ends of World War II, and the 1947 portrait of an impossibly youthful Truman Capote.

But also there are school photographs, an identity picture taken when he was a captive in Germany during the war, a poster advertising his first ever exhibition - in New York in 1933.

I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went into the street
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Cartier-Bresson was one of a handful of people who in the 1920s and 30s turned what had until then been a gentlemanly hobby or a working-class profession into art.

His revelation came in 1931 when after returning from a year hunting in colonial Africa he saw a photograph in Paris by the Hungarian Martin Munkacsi of boys playing in Lake Tanganyika.

"When I saw the photograph of Munkacsi of the black kids running in the wave I couldn't believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went into the street," he once said.

Decisive moment

The Munkacsi picture is now on show at the newly-opened Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, which is to be an archive and working space for new photographers.

He began 'prowling the streets... determined to trap life, to preserve life in the act of living'
Cartier-Bresson only shot black-and-white film, never used artificial light and never cropped his pictures.

Using the new fast-shooting, portable cameras that became available in the 1930s - notably his trademark Leica - he began "prowling the streets... determined to trap life, to preserve life in the act of living."

It was this constant search for images that gave the journalistic edge to his work. Later he was to become the co-founder of the trail-blazing Magnum picture agency.

He defined his vision in the concept of the "Decisive Moment," which he said was the "simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression."

Indeed all his works betray an obsession with geometry and form which he owed to his early training as a painter under the French artist Andre Lhote in the 1920s.

Drawing

Cartier-Bresson's travels with a camera took him to eastern Europe, Spain and Mexico before the war, and after his escape from the Germans he witnessed the liberation of France in 1944.

With Magnum he helped set the standard for photographic reportage. He was there for the start of Communism in China and the murder of Mahatma Gandhi in India.

In 1966 he left Magnum to concentrate on portraiture and landscapes. Among those who have sat for him over the years are Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Matisse and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Today he lives in a flat overlooking the Tuileries gardens in central Paris. His main occupation is drawing now, but his trusty Leica is never far.

New works are still being added to the Cartier-Bresson oeuvre.


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