1952 | Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment: Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson. “The decisive moment” monograph, with back cover by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

Henri Matisse, La Gerbe, 1953 | 294 cm x 350 cm




I would love to have a look at (or buy!) at Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (1952). That cover (above) by Matisse, who died two years after the book was published, is such an odd but inspired image for a book on photography.

Or be in Ottawa in 1958 to see “The Decisive Moment: Photographs, 1930-1956.”

So it was a bit of a thrill to attend the opening of “The Master of the Instant,” again organized by our national gallery and on tour this time in the small-but-superb West Vancouver Museum, together with “Lionel Thomas Abstractions 1949-1990.”




I was first exposed to the work of Cartier-Bresson via a tome entitled Henri Cartier-Bresson: Photographer (1979), a heavy-duty coffee table book which acted to canonize this giant’s work for a new generation in the early ’80s.

Cartier-Bresson was not only the best photojournalist the twentieth century produced, he was as intriguing as the myriad subjects of his photographs.

He was exposed to a wide audience in the mid-century via that great disseminator of America *Good Life Version (aka LIFE magazine), his photos often clashing with the portrayal and promotion of a nascent consumer lifestyle and its attendant accumulation of “things.” His photos were overwhelmingly of people: in all of their permutations.

He is a mid-century great right up there in Mid-Century Heaven with Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe, Saarinen, Aalto, and the other giants of a revolution in design.

Flipping through Photographer is to witness the evolution of one of the world’s great artists.




The Cartier-Bresson photo that always stops me cold is informally known as Stool-pigeon. The name under which it was initially exhibited, however, tells the whole story: Who, Where, What, and When of the “instant.” In this case, Dessau, 1945.

This is “the defining moment” crystallized: man’s inhumanity to man (but in this case, provocatively, it’s two women locked in an intense emotional battle).

As with all great photographs, looking at Stool-pigeon, I want to know more.

This is what I discovered:

Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908–2004)
Dessau, Germany
[French Gestapo Informer Discovered at Camp of Displaced Persons]
1945, printed 1946
Gelatin silver print
23.4 x 34.7 cm

When the Second World War broke out, Cartier-Bresson was drafted almost immediately. He was captured by the Germans in June 1940, and sent to a PoW camp in Germany. After two failed attempts, he managed to escape and began making his way back to Paris.

‘I was hiding in a farm with several others, Jews and escaped prisoners, and I stayed there for two or three months until, finally, I came back to Paris and worked for the underground.’

He paused, watching my face, as if he knew that for my generation stories of the Resistance were exciting tales of couriers on bicycles and moonless nights.

‘After Liberation, I went back to the farm and discovered that one of the people in the group was a stool-pigeon, a member of the French Gestapo, something like that, and everybody, including the farmer, but not the farmer’s wife, had ended up in Buchenwald.’

– Liz Jobey, “A Life in Pictures.” The Guardian, 31 January 1998

Henri Cartier Bresson : PhotographerHenri Cartier Bresson : Photographer

Photo > Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographed by Jane Bown in 1957

Photo > Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographed in 2000 by Michel Lipchitz/AP

Alicante, Spain, Gelatin silver print, 1933 |16.6 x 24.5 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Hyères, France, Gelatin silver print, 1932 | 16.5 x 24.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


• The New York Review of Books: Slide Show | Henri Cartier-Bresson, Genius at Work by Dominique Nabokov

• Wikipedia: Henri Cartier-Bresson, especially for the External Links


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