I tracked Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) from England to India to Indonesia and back. He was in England for the coronation of King George VI; he was in India when Gandhi was assassinated; he was in Indonesia as the nation gained independence from the Dutch. He was seemingly everywhere.
I know because it was my job to compile all of Cartier-Bresson’s photo captions, notes, datebooks, and correspondence from his travels, which covered the better part of the 50 years he was actively working as a photographer. I then had to transform this into a comprehensive yet comprehensible chronology that would appear in the catalogue of the exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century.
With no precedent from which to work, the task initially felt daunting. I dove into the massive files of material with the indispensable help of Aude Raimbault, from the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, and Pauline Vermare, who came from the Fondation to MoMA to assist on the project. I began to uncover information that made me feel as if I were a detective on Cartier-Bresson’s trail, and I quickly fell into a rhythm, accompanying him from Europe to America to the Far East.
I read letters and telegrams to and from Cartier-Bresson, who was in New York when families were reunited after years of separation during World War II and in Shanghai when Communist forces marched into the city and a bank panic occurred. When I saw photographs from those exact moments (at left and above), it was thrilling—I had witnessed history through the lens of a true master.
Upon finishing my research, I had a nearly forty-page document outlining Cartier-Bresson’s adventures from 1929 to 2000. It was so detailed that it often indicated the exact days when he was in a particular place, why he was there, and what he was doing.
The result is a portrait of a photographer who was truly at home anywhere in the world. Cartier-Bresson’s energy knew no bounds. At one point in his extensive travels, between 1946 and 1950, he photographed on the road for nearly four years straight. And Cartier-Bresson generally didn’t travel by luxury jet airliner—he preferred going by boat, train, car, bus, truck, bicycle, and motorcycle.
For Cartier-Bresson, to photograph was to live. As he said, “It is through living that we discover ourselves, at the same time as we discover the world around us.”