Few people have led more storied lives than Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died last week at the age of 95. Born rich into a family of French thread merchants, he trained as a painter enamored of the surrealists. After a trip to Africa in 1930, where he wound up nearly dying from blackwater fever, he returned to France and took up photography. Almost immediately, his work set a standard for excellence that has yet to be matched. Art photography, portraiture, photojournalism--there was nothing he could not do with a camera.
As a French soldier and Resistance fighter during World War II, he escaped from German prisoner-of-war camps three times. After the war, he was one of the founders of Magnum, the photojournalists' cooperative for which he shot the rise of communist China and the fall of British India. Then, when he was in his 60s, he abandoned photography, shelving his camera in favor of a pencil and sketch pad. Drawing became his passion for the rest of his life.
To Cartier-Bresson, his identity as an artist was unchanging and inviolate; the tools he used were almost immaterial. If photography came hard to him, he never let it show. A year ago, in an interview with NEWSWEEK, he insisted--over his wife's loud objections--that "anyone with a camera is a photographer." But only one man had the discerning eye and the lightning reflexes to capture again and again and again what he called "the decisive moment," that fraction of a second when reality and design intersect so perfectly that the result is a work of art on film. Capturing that moment may have seemed like second nature to Cartier-Bresson. To the rest of us, it simply looked miraculous.