Born in Chanteloup, Cartier-Bresson started painting in 1923 and began to photograph in 1931, met Tériade, the editor of Verve magazine and frequented members of the French surrealist movement. After a trip to the Ivory Coast he discovered the Leica, since then his camera of choice. He pursued his photographic career in Eastern Europe and Mexico, later on making films with Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker and André Zvoboda and a documentary on Republican Spain (1937).
A war prisoner, he escaped in 1940 and made portraits of artists: Matisse, Rouault, Braque, Bonnard. In 1945 he photographed and covered the liberation of Paris with a group of professional journalists before filming the 1946 documentary “Le Retour” (The Return) and spending a year in the US to complete a “posthumous” exhibition initiated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art out of a belief that he was dead. In 1947 he founded Magnum Photos with Bill Vandivert, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour “Chim”, then spent three years in India, Burma, Pakistan, Indonesia and China (during the last six months of the Kuomintang and the first six months of the People’s Republic of China). In 1952 he returned to Europe and in 1954 was the first foreign photographer admitted into the USSR. He subsequently traveled to China, Cuba in the 1960s, Mexico, Canada, the USA, India and Japan among other countries. In 1968 he began to curtail his photography and follow his passion for drawing and painting.
He believes that there is a specific moment in each of life’s episodes in which all the elements come into alignment resulting in a geometric pattern that reveals all there is to tell about a single episode. Whether this geometry was durable or fleeting, Cartier-Bresson feels that it is the duty of a documentary photographer to be a passive but omniscient observer, prepared to capture his subject at the precise moment, the “decisive moment”.
Cartier-Bresson is the recipient of an extraordinary number of prizes, awards and honorary doctorates, among which the Overseas Press Club of America Award (1948, 1954, 1960, 1964), The A.S.M.P. Award (1953), the Prix de la Société Française de Photographie (1959), the Culture Prize, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie (1975).