Art History: The Life and Lessons of Master Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson

Magnum Photos

Along with other legendary photographers, such as Robert Capa and George Rodger, Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos in 1947. The cooperative photo agency, still in operation today, allowed the artists to split photo assignments and capitalize on their collective capabilities. Importantly, the agency was, and still is, a cooperative owned by its members and continues to cover some of the most important events in history.

During Cartier-Bresson’s lifetime, he shot Gandhi’s funeral, the first six months of the Maoist People’s Republic, and Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch for Magnum. To this day, Magnum produces high-quality photojournalism with a wait time for membership topping four years.

The Decisive Moment

“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.

In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published The Decisive Moment, which not only included a portfolio of 126 photographs, but a rich introductory text by the photographer which laid out his artistic philosophy.

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” This iconic quote actually comes from a 17th-century French text, but when applied by Cartier-Bresson to the field of photography, takes on a whole new meaning.

“Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick.”

This concept of the decisive moment in photography is a philosophy that would come to inspire photographers for generations, especially street photographers, who find a kindred spirit in Cartier-Bresson’s spontaneous style.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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