I did not take note of this earlier in the week when it happened: legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson passed away last Monday, at the age of 95, in the town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (a small, charming canal town I have actually visited, in Provence). To observe this terrible loss, I offer a translation of the following excerpts of an article (Cartier-Bresson, l'œil du siècle [Cartier-Bresson, the eye of the century], August 4) by Michel Nuridsany in Le Figaro:
Although that wonderful story might seem improbable, it is the sort of thing I could actually believe happened. HCB indeed failed the bac three times and ended up falling in with the surrealists in his 20s. He met Gertrude Stein, who criticized his paintings by telling him to go into his father's business. He traveled through Africa, nearly dying from an infection, and took up photography when he returned to France. Shortly thereafter he met the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi, whom he credited as his first important inspiration. He traveled around the world taking photographs: Spain, Romania, Mexico. He went to New York to study film with Paul Strand, and he was Jean Renoir's assistant during the years that he made Règle du jeu. He became a prisoner of war in 1940 but managed to survive, although his first photography retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York listed him as a casualty of the Second World War. From that point on, of course, he took extraordinary photograph after extraordinary photograph until he retired. Do people still lives like that?
He was born in 1908, in Chanteloup, in a comfortable milieu of textile workers and art amateurs. His father, his uncle, and his great-grandfather drew and painted well enough. Furthermore, at the end of his life, the master of photography was interested only in his own drawings. Henri Cartier-Bresson's first wife was a Javanese dancer. At the time he was interested in India, Tibet, in their spirituality. He lived part of his life in the Far East. "That comes from far away," he had told me during a long and impassioned interview, full of unaccustomed confidences, showing me then his last photo: that of Abbé Pierre [image shown below].
Henri Cartier-Bresson, drawing
When he was at Fénelon [High School], he always remembered the time that he had been caught by the surveillant général [vice-principal] while reading Rimbaud in one of his junior classes. Speaking down to him [En le tutoyant], never a good sign, he exclaimed, "No messing around with your studies!" But, when it was just the two of them, he had told him, "You will come read in my office."
"He didn't have to tell me twice," Cartier-Bresson told me, "and I read there for the whole year. That's why I was never able to pass my bac [graduation exam]; but I read everything you could read: Proust, the Russian novelists, Freud, Nietzsche, and a book on Schopenhauer that led me to Romain Rolland and to Hinduism. This left a huge mark on me. I had never believed in Christianity. My mother used to complain about it: "My poor dear, she used to say, if you had only had a good Dominican confessor, you wouldn't be in this situation." And at the same time, she gave me Jean Barois and the Pre-Socratics to read. She was a leftist Christian. I'm a free-thinker, myself."
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Abbé Pierre, 1994
This site has some remarkable images of HCB's photographs. Lux æterna luceat ei.
UPDATE: See also—
Michael Kimmelman, Cartier-Bresson, Artist Who Used Lens, Dies at 95 (August 4, New York Times)
Photographs of (not by) Henri Cartier-Bresson (Le Nouvel Observateur)
Michel Guerin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, la géométrie du vivant (August 5, Le Monde), with links to the other articles on HCB in the same issue
L'œil qui prenait le temps (gallery of photographs, Le Monde)
Tête à tête: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Washington Post)
De qui s'agit-il? Henri Cartier-Bresson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)