Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Fleeting Depiction of Hyères

Henri Cartier-Bresson is perhaps the most significant photographer of the twentieth century. Striving for a perfect balance of content and formal composition in all his work, Cartier-Bresson brought a new aesthetic and practice to photography, initiated modern photojournalism, and influenced countless followers. Hyères, France is amongst Henri Cartier-Bresson’s best-known works, and represents one of the artist’s earliest investigations into what he would later term ‘the decisive moment’.

Cartier-Bresson had reached Hyères, a town just inland from the Mediterranean coast, following travels and a near-death experience on the Côte d’Ivoire in French colonial Africa. Having previously worked using a second-hand Krauss camera, in which exposures were made by lifting the lens cap, Cartier-Bresson bought his first 50mm Leica in Marseilles in 1932. Cartier-Bresson’s adoption of the handheld camera had an enormous impact on his photographic output and introduced a spontaneity to his work by capturing fleeting moments that he encountered. It also marked an early turning point in his career in the adoption of a style that would define twentieth century photojournalism.

Though Cartier-Bresson’s photograph appears spontaneous, in reality the composition of Hyères was highly calculated. The artist seized on the arrangement of the railings, their spiralling movement, and waited for an event which would complement their seemingly static mobility. The fleeting moment of a cyclist passing by provided an ideal formal composition. For Cartier-Bresson, the simultaneous handicap and ability to capture reality in a split-second was what distinguished photography from other art forms, such as painting, drawing and sculpture. Cartier-Bresson’s theories were influenced in particular by the work of Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi. Munkácsi’s photograph Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika (1930) captured the reckless abandon, freedom and movement of the boys running into the surf, which struck a chord with Cartier-Bresson who believed the image, as all photographs should, attested to the joy of being alive.

By the 1930s, technical advancement in the development of photographic film allowed for the editing of negatives, which was common practice amongst photographers. Nonetheless, Cartier-Bresson insisted that photography’s potency lay in the particular moment in which an image is taken. As such, Cartier-Bresson’s prints now come to us largely without retouching, darkroom manipulation, or cropping: evidence of the decisive precision of the artist’s camera work.

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