Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson .February 1953

Henri Cartier-Bresson .February 1953 ,photograph by Marilyn Stafford

It seems that stories about photographers always include a mention of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He studied painting in his teens and was keen on surrealism but turned to photography in 1933.

If Henri Cartier-Bresson (22/08/1908 -3/08/2004) had been a musician he would have been credited with the beginnings of Jazz or then maybe he would have been a rapper. He was at the forefront of a genre that many followed and continue to follow today.

It is described as candid or street photography and although he was a master of this style he was not the founder, it is a style that arguably can be traced back to the early days of photography. Candid or street photography is defined as photography without posing the subject nor does the photographer arrange the photo but is aware of the opportunity and takes the picture as the instant arrives.

The evolution of cameras allowed Cartier-Bresson to explore this style in an unobtrusive way that often left the subject unaware that they had been photographed. Photographers of the early years may have had a camera mounted on a tripod and an assistant holding the flash powder. Cartier-Bresson preferred to work without flash and take the image in an instant and the arrival of the Leica camera which he first bought in 1932 enabled him to do just that.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Cartier Bresson said “Photography is not like painting, there is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

In 1947 Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert formed Magnum Photos, a leading photo agency, then, and now, and while working for Magnum Cartier-Bresson traveled to India and China with his trusty Leica, his notebook, as he called it. It accompanied him wherever he went.

Three years were spent traveling in the far east for Magnum and when he returned to Paris he published his first book, The Decisive Moment.

Cartier Bresson believed that the composition of the photograph is done in the camera and not back in the darkroom. His pictures are generally seen uncropped and exhibited with a black border to show the frame from edge to edge.

It was around the early 1950s that he met US-born Marilyn Stafford through a mutual friend.

Stafford born in Cleveland Ohio had traveled from the US to Paris to pursue a career on the stage as a singer and dancer but had an urge to become a full-time photographer.

She already had experience in photography working in a photographic studio in New York to subsidise her stage and singing career, she had a break when a film crew who were about to interview Albert Einstein asked Marilyn if she would like to accompany them and ‘do the stills’. Her first assignment and it was to photograph Einstein.

When Cartier Bresson was in India he met Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand who was a friend of Marilyn. Anand introduced them during one of his visits to Paris. Anand was very paternalistic, and on his return to India he asked Cartier-Bresson to keep an eye on Marilyn, which he graciously did and from then on, they became good friends.

Cartier Bresson became a mentor to Marilyn and would invite her to accompany him as he took pictures on the streets of Paris. Some suggested that her presence enabled Cartier-Bresson to work easier because people were more interested in a woman with a camera than Cartier-Bresson and his almost invisible Leica.

I recently met Marilyn at her retrospective exhibition in Brighton and I asked her about Cartier-Bresson, she said ”When I showed my photographs to Henri he never said do this or that, rather he made suggestions to show a different story, especially in relation to composition and cropping”.

Marilyn worked with Cartier Bresson for many years and he helped her improve her ‘street style’ photographs and it gave her a unique edge. Marilyn’s style caught the eye and she was commissioned to work for famous fashion houses in Paris photographing haute couture, but instead of photographing the collections in a studio, Marilyn took the models to the streets of the poorer parts of Paris where surrounded by local children she photographed the fashions of the day.

Once asked what she had learned from Cartier-Bresson she replied ”I remember we were in a cafe and he had a Leica in his hand and he took a photo imperceptively. He taught me you had to be invisible.” (from ”A life in Pictures”, by Marilyn Stafford)

Marilyn traveled to Tunisia in 1958, where she had gone to photograph refugees from the Algerian War of Independence, and when she returned she took her pictures to Cartier-Bresson who made a selection and then sent them to the Observer in London. They were published by the Observer and these photographs became her first front page. Marilyn moved to London where she was given regular work by the Observer newspaper.

A retrospective of Marilyn’s work, her first exhibition, is on show at Brighton Museum until May 8th, 2022, and then to Dimbola Museum and Galleries, Isle of Wight, 11 June – 18 September 2022

It includes photos from her years in Paris socialising with stars such as Edith Piaf, Bing Crosby, and Charles Aznavour, her trip to Tunisia to photograph Algerian refugees and of Indira Ghandi in India, and many more of the wonderful pictures that Stafford took in a career. Among the photos that Marilyn has taken is this rare picture of Henri Cartier-Bresson a man, who ironically, hated having his photo taken.

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