A new edition of a collection of the distinctive black and white photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson is to be published in France. Almost two decades after his death, the man nicknamed “the eye of the century” for his documentation of 21st-century history remains the focus for a new generation of photographers and art lovers.
It is not clear if this would have delighted or dismayed the man who abandoned his trademark Leica 35mm rangefinder camera in the 1970s to take up drawing and painting, declaring: “I have no interest in photography.”
Henri Cartier Bresson: Photographe is the 11th edition of a set of 155 photographs taken between 1926 and 1978, four years after the French photographer had resigned from the Magnum picture agency he co-founded with several colleagues including war photographers Robert Capa, killed in Indochina, and David “Chim” Seymour, shot dead near the Suez Canal in 1956.
Catherine Philippot, representing the French publishing house Delpire, which has produced the latest edition of the book, said despite Cartier-Bresson’s later dismissal of his work he remained one of the leading names in the history of photography.
“The book has been out of print for some time but there was clearly a demand for it otherwise we wouldn’t be publishing this edition,” Philippot said. “Cartier-Bresson continues to fascinate because he is one of the key photographers of historical record.”
Cartier-Bresson is described by some as the godfather of photojournalism, one of the first to practise the art. In his 1952 essay entitled “The decisive moment”, he described photography as a physical ability to capture the key instant.
The book is an extraordinary walk through 50 years of history captured by a man who saw the camera as an extension of his eye, but who spent his later years downplaying what he had previously seen and captured on film.
In 1937, he travelled to the UK to cover the coronation of George VI and Elizabeth for the French weekly magazine Regards. He took pictures of ordinary people waiting in the streets of London rather than the royals.
He documented the Spanish civil war and the liberation of Paris in 1944. In 1948, he photographed Mahatma Gandhi hours before he was assassinated. In 1954, he was the first western photographer invited to the Soviet Union to record life after Joseph Stalin.
At one point he decided to concentrate on portraits, capturing Pablo Picasso, Albert Camus, Colette, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.
The American-born photographer Marilyn Stafford, who lives in the UK, was mentored by Cartier-Bresson and Capa in Paris after the second world war. She also took one of the very few existing images of the camera-shy Cartier-Bresson at that time.
“Capa and Cartier-Bresson were photography idols at the time. They were the gods,” Stafford said.
In the three decades he wielded a camera, Cartier-Bresson travelled around Europe, America, India, Japan, Mexico, China and the Soviet Union. He spent his last years drawing and painting, as he had in the 1920s when he had mixed with the surrealists in Paris after studying art, literature and English at Cambridge University. When he died, he left behind an estimated half a million negatives.
“Everyone keeps asking me about photography, but I don’t believe in my career as a photographer,” he said in a 2003 interview a year before his death. “Photography is just about clicking the shutter, bringing your finger down at the right moment. Drawing is what matters. Photography no longer interests me.”
Emmanuelle Kouchner, the director of publisher Delpire & Co, said editors had worked with the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation to improve the reproduction of the images in the new edition.
She said: “It’s important to remember that this is a book originally created with Cartier-Bresson with his choice of images. In the end he moved on to drawing and painting, but these were the photographs he wished to be remembered for.”