The Decisive Machine

How Henri Cartier-Bresson made both commerce and art from imagery


French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died this week at 95, was one of those figures whose influence is so comprehensive that it can be difficult to discern. The great black-and-white photographs of the last century look the way they do thanks in great part to him. He was instrumental in defining the publicly displayed photo: its content, its composition, its mix of light and shadow. It is a cliché—an accurate one—to observe that Cartier-Bresson helped turn photography into an art. But then, he helped turn photography into commerce, too, and that is the route that photography took to acknowledged artistry.

"Photography," he once argued, "has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important." It's true that he never used a wide-angle lens, and that he avoided flash lighting. Yet advancing technology made all the difference for Cartier-Bresson and his generation of photojournalism pioneers. The development in the 1930s of lightweight Leica cameras freed photography of cumbersome machinery, allowing photographers to move freely, act quickly, and remain relatively unobtrusive. Cartier-Bresson made a credo of these technologically enabled abilities; they made it possible for him to spend his career in search of what he famously termed the "decisive moment."

There's a great range of such moments in his career, which spanned half a century, the entire globe, and some 700,000 images. He is responsible for dozens of the century's greatest images. Some of them are noteworthy because they reveal an important but hidden dimension of war, politics, and violence. Other images, however, are important and memorable entirely because Cartier-Bresson captured them.

Such moments may well have been "decisive" for Cartier-Bresson the photographer, but it is precisely a lack of narrative decisiveness that makes so many of his images memorable. One of his most frequently reproduced shots was taken in Brussels in 1932, and presents us merely with a pair of men peeping through a screen. It's a perfect example of an extremely simple image that is able to generate a variety of absorbing narratives. Critic Ian Jeffrey offers this one: "One [man] glances around warily; his colleague, a younger man in cap and jacket, sticks to his task entranced. It is the older man, in overcoat and bowler, who shows unease; curiosity and dignity are incompatible, but curiosity persists." How many photographers have been able to capture an image of curiosity in conflict with dignity?

What is the narrative—indeed, what is the real subject—of this justly famous and haunting image from Valencia? How many ways can one read this memorable, circus-like tableau of Spanish whores? And just what has happened during this lazy Sunday on the banks of the Marne that has captured the attention of generations of Cartier-Bresson's admirers? Each such admirer will likely offer a different tale.

Eamonn McCabe, the former photo editor of London's Guardian, writes that Cartier-Bresson benefited from working during "photography's age of innocence," an innocence that the great photographer helped end. Yet it is arguable that Cartier-Bresson's achievement in helping to professionalize photography is as important, in its way, as is his imagery.

In 1947, working with Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour, Cartier-Bresson established Magnum pictures, ensuring, as McCabe observes, "that photographers would be properly paid, bylined and have their copyright protected." But this professionalization, laments McCabe, "began to undermine the innocence from which [Cartier-Bresson] had benefited in the 1930s. Pictures became commerce."

Yet it was the commerce of photography that was reshaping the field and helping it gain ever-greater public significance. A shelf of commercial magazines that relied heavily on photo images for their content emerged in the 1930s: Britain's Picture Post, France's Paris Match, and such American magazine's as Life, Look, and Collier's. "With the proliferation of the illustrated magazines," writes British photo historian Jorge Lewinski, "the status of the photographer received its greatest boost." These magazines were to enter their acknowledged golden age in the years after World War II, when immense audiences became increasingly sophisticated about photography by being exposed to dramatic and effective work every week. As a result of such agencies as Magnum, photographers could protect not only their legal and financial interests, but also their art. In Cartier-Bresson's case, you couldn't so much as crop his work; it was considered complete as he had composed it in the camera. Indeed, you still cannot crop his pictures.

The Guardian's McCabe also argues that, in Cartier-Bresson's day, photography was more "innocent" because the field was less "political." Of course, there's a good argument that the 1930s were photography's most politicized era; among other reasons, many talented photographers were working in the service of such modernist states as the American New Deal and the Soviet Union (and were producing remarkably similar sets of images for each of them). McCabe's political point, however, is a different one. He believes that it is the act of photographing that has become politicized. That is, the kind of people who once willingly allowed Cartier-Bresson and his colleagues to snap them are now likely to foresee the potential use or abuse of the resulting images, and to object. (Indeed, he offers exactly such an experience of his own.) If McCabe is right, then Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries unknowingly snapped their world out of existence, by unintentionally (and perhaps inevitably) changing the context in which they worked. Imagery is now different, because people are far more wary of the act of capturing it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson began as a painter who played around with a little box camera as a hobby. He regarded himself as a painter throughout his life, reportedly always carrying with him a little book in which he might do quick sketches. It's not hard to see a painterly eye in much of his work, nor a painterly attitude in his refusal to allow his images to be altered. In fact, he was said to have been quite pleased when one of his publishers urged him to do more art, and fewer photos. In the end, that's just what he did. After 1974, Cartier-Bresson devoted much of his time to painting, often copying museum works. He was ambivalent about photography and its technology to the end. In fact, he once shrugged off the whole endeavor as just "a mechanical thing," even as he left behind a body of work proving it was anything but.