Henri Cartier-Bresson – Paris Revisited

Review by Douglas Stockdale •

This is another retrospective monograph of the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, frequently known as HC-B, focusing on his photographic oeuvre based on his time in Paris, a place that was his home base as well as a touch-point for the duration of his photographic career.

I will admit that Cartier-Bresson’s photojournalist photobooks are frequently published by Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in what one might call a slice and dice manner, breaking down and re-segmenting his expansive body of work into various book chunks. These book sell well because of Cartier-Bresson’s fame and photojournalist reputation, nevertheless, when drilling down into segments of his artwork, such as this one in which his subject is Paris, a reader has an opportunity to understand his ups and downs. Fortunately, it appears that the editors went below the manufactured veneer created by Cartier-Bresson as to delving into the man himself.

Initially this book focuses on Cartier-Bresson’s early photographic development in Paris, his early romance with the Lecia rangefinder camera, and his photographic portfolio ‘focusing’ on the people and portraits of the city until the end of WWII. After co-founding Magnum in 1947, he spent a great portion of his time elsewhere on various photographic projects, intermittently returning to Paris, until he ‘retired’ from Magnum in the 1960’s. This book provides his greatest hits from his time in Paris, such as the ‘decisive’ leap behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932) and Sunday on the Banks of the Seine (near Juvisy-sur-Orge (1938), as well as many photographs that one might not anticipate as being a ‘Cartier-Bresson” image. In that regard, this photobook provides a broad and impressive sampling of his body of work from his time in Paris, which if you are a Cartier-Bresson fan, may in itself be worth the purchase. 

In addition to the Cartier-Bresson photographs are the insightful tidbits and photographic trivia offered by the Editors. Such as how a financial weight did not impede Cartier-Bresson progress due in large part to his family’s wealth, which did require him to conceal his family name, pared down to just ‘Cartier’, in the 1930’s while having his photographs published and exhibited in conjunction with French Community Party. As a result, his photographic work was not as profusely published in the 1930’s as much as his contemporaries, which apparently he had a tendency to downplay later in his career.

After meeting Paul Strand in Mexico, that Cartier-Bresson serious considered a professional move into film making, becoming a second assistant director to Jean Renoir upon his return to France. Subsequently he worked on a number of films intermittently into the 1960’s. The effect was lasting, as you can detect a cinematic appearance to many of his still photographs.

During WWII, he enlisted in the French army, was subsequently captured by the Germans and after two and half years, he managed to escape. He then used false papers to return to war-time Paris to photograph the events occurring at the close of the war. Apparently during the time leading up to the war and afterwards, Cartier-Bresson came to realize that he was not a spot NEWS photograph (although apparently he tried to), but a photo-journalist as he came to understand how to create a narrative with his photographs, which required more time to develop. This was later translated into one of the foundational elements of Magnum.

Interestingly, this book asserts that Cartier-Bresson saw himself as a portrait photographer, who sometimes included a landscape to provide a context for the people. There are three chapters devoted to his portraits that are chronologically sequenced. He thought himself as a brief visitor when creating his portraits, thus the resulting photograph’s usually have a snapshot esthetic, while he did take great pains to establish his subject’s context. Unlike the American photographer and his contemporary, Eugene Smith, he would not make a fuss about the editing and cropping of his photographs, reserving the right to subsequently exhibit his photographs as he had originally intended these to be seen.

As stated above, and probably well known, that in 1947 while visiting NYC, he co-founded Magnum with George Rodger, Robert Capa and David Seymour (aka Chim). Perhaps downplayed are the number of photographic projects that Cartier-Bresson developed in the 1950’s that were not published. Perhaps an experience that is shared by many photographers, much is taken but few are published or exhibited. He had more success with his American publishers than his own until the 1960’s when the entire world seemed to become aware of this reserved photographer.

Personally, now reviewing the second extensive book about Cartier-Bresson’s career, I can start to see a trend-line in his compositional style. The subject matter is bottom weighted in his framing, whether horizonal or vertical. For many of his horizontal compositions, as mentioned above, there is a strong cinematic element, with the subject further towards the edge of the frame and allowing a broad background environment context to complete the narrative. The evolution of an environmental portrait; Cartier-Bresson as story-teller.

As a bittersweet ending, the famous photographer turned painter, almost entirely abandoning his camera to take up drawing and painting (it was said that he kept his Leica in a safe, from which it rarely ventured). Then he moved from Paris to the south of France with his second wife, Martine Franck and their daughter, to continue his non-photographic artwork until his passing at age 95, being buried in a near-by village.

This book provides perhaps another interesting layer being peeled off to reveal the late Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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Other photobook featuring Henri Cartier-Bresson that has been reviewed on PhotoBook JournalHenri Cartier-Bresson – Here and Now

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Douglas Stockdale, visual artist, Senior Editor & founder, PhotoBook Journal

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Henri Cartier-Bresson – Paris Revisited, Anne de Mondenard & Agnes Sire, Editors

Photographer: Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), born Chanteloup-en-Brie, passed in Cereste, France

Publisher: Thames & Hudson, London, and Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, copyright 2021

Essays: Agnes Sire, Anne de Mondenard

Text: English

Hardcover, imagewrap, offset lithographic printing, sewn, printed in Italy, ISBN 978-0-500-54542-3

Book Designer: Catherine Barluet

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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