Regarded as one of the greatest photographers of his time, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a shy Frenchman, born in 1908, who elevated “snap shooting” to the level of a refined and disciplined art. His ability to catch “the decisive moment,” his precise eye for design, his self-effacing methods of work, and his literate comments about the theory and practice of photography make him a legendary figure among contemporary photojournalists. During his lifetime, Bresson had over sixty exhibitions and has published over thirty-five books.
Bresson remained devoted to the 35mm rangefinder camera with a normal 50mm lens throughout his career. The anonymity that the small camera gave him in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the formal and unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed. He enhanced his anonymity by painting all shiny parts of his Leica with black paint and wrapping black tape around the camera’s chrome body to make it less conspicuous. The camera itself, in his own famous phrase, became an “extension of the eye”.
Working exclusively in black and white, Bresson disliked developing or making his own prints and believed in composing his photographs in the viewfinder instead of in the darkroom. He showcased this belief by having nearly all his photographs printed only at full-frame and completely free of any cropping or other darkroom manipulation. Bresson emphasized that his prints were not cropped by insisting they include the first millimeter or so of the unexposed clear negative around the image area resulting, after printing, in a black border around the positive image. “I’ve never been interested in the process of photography, never, never. Right from the beginning. For me, photography with a small camera like the Leica is an instant drawing,” he said.
His first book contained an often-quoted paragraph that sums up his approach to photography and has become something of a creed for candid, available light photojournalists everywhere. The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson tersely defined it, is ‘the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”