The co-founder of the Magnum photo agency, a pioneer in photographic reportage, died on Monday in Provence in southern France, and was buried on Wednesday.
Born on 22 August 1908 to a bourgeois family in a small town east of Paris, Cartier-Bresson took up photography in the 1930s after first studying painting.
Shooting only black-and-white film, shunning artificial light and refusing to crop his pictures, he is seen by critics as one of the generation of photographers responsible for elevating what had been a hobby or a profession into a fully fledged art form.
His personal contribution was to combine the notion of the “decisive moment” – the name he gave to a major collection of his work in 1952 – with the meticulous eye for design and proportion that he learned from his studies with painter Andre Lhote in the 1920s.
The “decisive moment”, he said in an oft-quoted line, “is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression”.
In other words, being at the right place at the right time, of course with his trusted Leica at the ready.
A student of the Surrealists, a movement at its height in the Paris of the 1920s, Cartier-Bresson shared their view of the unpredictability of significance.
“A genius photographer, a real master, one of the most talented artists of his generation and one of the most respected in the world”
With the unobtrusive and fast-shooting cameras that became available from the 1930s, he was permanently on the look-out for arresting images, blazing the trail for generations of photojournalists to come.
Rebellious by nature, Cartier-Bresson left his studies in 1931 for colonial Africa where he spent a year as a hunter and took his first photographs, few of which have survived.
Returning to France he came to realise the possibilities of the camera, acquired the Leica and began – in his words – “prowling the streets … determined to trap life, to preserve life in the act of living”.
Before the war he worked in eastern Europe, Spain and Mexico and collaborated with film director Jean Renoir. Imprisoned by the Germans in 1940, he escaped three years later and was on hand for the liberation of Paris, 60 years ago this month.
In 1947 he joined two colleagues at the newspaper Ce Soir, Robert Capa and David Seymour, to found Magnum Photos, which for decades set the standard for photographic reportage around the world.
Cartier-Bresson was there at the birth of communism in China and the murder of Mahatma Gandhi in India.
Cartier-Bresson set the standard
Among the famous names who have sat for him are Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Matisse, Edith Piaf and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
He left Magnum in 1966 to concentrate on portraiture, landscapes and drawing.
Last year the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation opened in Paris, housing more than 1000 original prints as well as contact sheets, films, manuscripts and correspondence.
At the same time a retrospective show of his work at the National Library drew tens of thousands of visitors.
Among the images on display were the moustachioed, bowler-hatted man caught peeping through the canvas at a sporting event in Brussels in 1932; a female prisoner denouncing a Gestapo informer in 1945; a boyish Truman Capote in 1947 and children playing near the Berlin Wall in 1962.
French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday said Cartier-Bresson’s passing meant the loss of a “genius photographer, a real master, one of the most talented artists of his generation and one of the most respected in the world”.
In one of his last interviews as the exhibit opened in April 2003, Cartier-Bresson reflected on death, and how Asian or Latin cultures treat the issue in contrast to many in the West.
“We French don’t think about it [death]. We don’t want to think about it,” he said.
“But in India people think about it all the time. In Mexico, too. What I like about that country is that death is very much alive.”