In 1927, Cartier-Bresson studied painting at the Lhote Academy in Paris under Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. He turned to photography in 1931 when he acquired a Leica 35mm camera – a camera that, unlike its bulky predecessors, was ideal for capturing action.
Cartier-Bresson preferred an unobtrusive (“a fly on the wall”) approach to photography. This approach helped to develop the real-life reporting (candid photography), that has influenced generations of photo-journalists.
Cartier-Bresson traveled the world photographing “the times” in Russia, China, Cuba, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, Europe, and the United States. He photographed events such as the funeral of Gandhi, the fall of Beijing, and the liberation of Paris. Cartier-Bresson’s main body of work however was of human activities and the institutions of society. In every country, he sought out market places, weddings, funerals, people at work, children in parks, adults in their leisure time, and other every-day activities.
During the Battle of France, in June 1940, Cartier-Bresson was captured by German soldiers and spent 35 months in prisoner-of-war camps doing forced labour under the Nazis. He escaped in 1943 and began working for MNPGD, a secret organization that aided prisoners and escapees. At the end of the war, Cartier-Bresson directed “Le Retour” (The Return), a documentary on the repatriation of prisoners of war and detainees.
In 1947, along with Robert Capa, David Seymour, William Vandivert, and George Rodger, Cartier-Bresson founded the co-operative agency “Magnum Photos”. The aim of Magnum was to allow photographers to “work outside the formulas of magazine journalism”.
In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published a book of his photographs entitled ” Images à la Sauvette” (images on the run), with the English title “The Decisive Moment”. In the 1960s he created 16 portraiture stories entitled “A Touch of Greatness” for the the London magazine “The Queen”. The stories profiled personalities such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Robert Kennedy and others.
In 1968, Cartier-Bresson left Magnum Photos and photography in general, focusing once again on drawing and painting. He retired from photography completely by 1975 and had his first exhibition of his drawings at the Carlton Gallery in New York in 1975.
From 1975 on, Cartier-Bresson continued to focus on drawing. In 1982 he was awarded the Grand Prix National de la Photographie in Paris, and in 1986, the Novecento Prize in Palermo, Italy. In 1988, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition of his photographs, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work”.
In 2003, Cartier-Bresson, along with his wife Martine Franck and their daughter Mélanie, launched the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, to provide a permanent home for his collected works and an exhibition space for other artists. Cartier-Bresson died peacefully on August 3, 2004 in Montjustin, Provence. He was buried in the cemetery of Montjustin, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France.