“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson is known for understanding and capturing photographs that show the “decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson’s creative life started as many of his era did, with painting. He had finished a year in Ivory Coast when he discovered the Leica camera. The Leica full-frame 35mm became his camera of choice. It was small, fairly lightweight and inconspicuous compared to cameras of the time like the Graphic and the twin lens Rolleiflex.  It was 1932. That year marked the start of his lifelong love and pursuit of photography. His first gallery show was in 1933 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York.

Henri Cartier-Bresson with Leica cameraAs World War II escalated in Europe, he became a prisoner of war in 1940. He finally escaped captivity after three attempts in 1943. He joined the resistance, helping prisoners and escapees as well. He photographed the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. It was 1945.

He was a co-founder, in 1947, of the picture agency Magnum along with Robert Capa, William Vandivert, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour. His travels in the East wrapped up in 1952. He published his first book, “The Decisive Moment.”

He explains photography’s appeal and his approach to it:

“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. It is by an economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.

“To take a photograph means to recognize, simultaneously and within a fraction of a second‚ both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.

“It is putting one‚ head, one‚ eye, and one‚ heart on the same axis.”

Cartier-Bresson returned to painting and drawing in 1968. Along with his wife and daughter, he created the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson to preserve his work. He died in Provance, France on August 3, 2004. He was 95 years old.

Excerpted from the Magnum website.

Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.