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Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Witness of the 20th Century


Cartier-Bresson introduced the mysticism of measures to the world of photography in the 1920s and 1930s.

Among the creative characters of history, Henri Cartier-Bresson had an outstanding lucidity. Be it enough to see how his geometries make perfect sense, even if sometimes the frames are odd or there appear to be fragmented forms in the very corners of his images. This is because in his photographs, geometry holds a dialogue with itself, creating in a single moment a language coherent and, at times, even epiphanic.

No one captured the essential art of the photography of the 20’s and 30’s, with so much intelligence and consistency, as Henri Cartier-Bresson. His mastery established the appreciation foundations for the art of photography. He wrote:

In photography,” wrote Cartier-Bresson, “there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.

Bresson loved painters like Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca because they were painters of the golden ratio. “Like them, he dreamt of diagonals and proportions, and he became obsessed with the mysticism of measures, as if the world was simply the product of numeric combinations”, wrote Pierre Assouline in the book Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Biography. At the same time, Bresson frequented the surrealist André Breton and sat with him in the Café de la Place Blanche to dialogue about life, luck, intuition and the role of spontaneous expression (the latter was one of the main pillars of the surrealist movement). In this manner, Bresson began to consider himself as more than a photojournalist; he was a surrealist with a camera in hand.

Alone, the Surrealist wanders the streets without destination but with a premeditated alertness for the unexpected detail that will release a marvellous and compelling reality just beneath the banal surface of ordinary existence.

Throughout the following century Breton would wander the world with his Leica, ready to “fix eternity in a moment”, as he put it. The photographer witnessed some of the major events of the twentieth century (like Gandhi’s death and the communist taking of China in 1949), as well as everyday moments that he mastered in instants of geometric perfection, full of a physical and intellectual enjoyment. ”He was the Tolstoy of photography,” said Richard Avedon shortly after Cartier-Bresson’s death in 2004 at the age of 95. “With profound humanity, he was the witness of the 20th Century.”

The 18 minute short film, entitled Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment, shows a selection of his most iconic photographs accompanied by the most eloquent commentaries by the photographer himself.

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