Henri Cartier-Bresson is recognized as one of the great masters of photography. Armed with only a Leica, he strove to capture the fleeting reality of what he called, “the decisive moment.” He employed neither gimmicks of craft nor tricks of composition. Lincoln Kirstein wrote, ” he is not making art, but taking life.” He always remained true to the French classical tradition, with its stress on simplicity, clarity and economy of means.
Like Stendhal and Saint-Simon, both among his favorite authors, he focused on the lyric essence of history rather than on the tragic or comic. Cartier-Bresson is French too, in his respect for reality. Like Cezanne painting for the twentieth time his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, like Proust recalling the taste of a madelaine dipped in tea many years before to recreate a long-vanished world, this photographer concentrated on the particulars of a scene to transform a passing fragment of existence into enduring art. As a realist, he cares little about children, old people, events in the abstract, but cares intensely about this little girl, this old man, this event…. at this moment.
“I enjoy shooting a picture. Being present. It’s a way of saying Yes! yes! yes! It’s like the last three words of Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s yes, yes, yes. And there are no maybes…. It’s a tremendous enjoyment to say, Yes! Even if it’s something you hate. Yes! it’s an affirmation.”
Of the innumerable candids he snapped over his career, probably none better convey his joyous sense of the mystery of human existence and of the unique worth of individual humans than do those of couples: youth and old age, fumbling and graceful, sad and celebratory, intimate and distant. Each image not only fixes forever a “precise and transitory instant,” but glows with the zest of its creator.