The quick, decisive moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson's images of organized composition and tension defined photojournalism

The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase "the decisive moment" to explain how successful photographs combined content and composition.

In his 1952 book by the same name, he described the process as "the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms."

Over the next five decades, this expression became one of the most universally repeated descriptions of the quick and candid aspects of photojournalism.

Cartier-Bresson was then already an experienced and respected newsmagazine photographer. His distinctive style of 35mm black-and-white photography with its organized composition and captured tension had been well developed by the early 1930s.

In 1943 he escaped from a German prison camp where he had been held for three years. In 1946, he formed the cooperative agency Magnum Photos with Robert Capa and a small group of compatriots.

The following year, he merited a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For the next two decades, he continued taking assignments - in Indonesia, China, Russia, and India - and prepared prints for numerous exhibitions.

In the early 1970s, he retired from photography and turned all of his energy toward painting and drawing. His artwork has been exhibited and published, but his reputation as a definitive and influential photographer has not diminished.

A new book repackaging earlier photos by genre or location - such as portraits, landscapes, or Paris - seems to be published annually.

But this year, at the age of 95, he was honored with a major retrospective in Paris. This large book is similarly definitive. It is the most comprehensive publication of Cartier-Bresson's photography - nearly 500 images. It includes all of his defining images and many that were seldom reproduced.

There are also six short essays. Two are particularly enlightening - Claude Cookman on Cartier-Bresson's claim in 1990 that he was never a photojournalist, and Philippe Arbaizar on his shows and exhibitions. There's a lengthy bibliography of his publications, exhibitions, and secondary articles; a sampling of his paintings and drawings; and even 20 pages of photographs of this notoriously camera-shy photographer.

While the photo reproduction is generally good, it's not as impressive as in the 1952 book. (But it's never been reprinted and will cost you more than $1,000.) You might prefer the current book and a plane ticket to the exhibit in Paris.

• Tom Toth is the Monitor's director of photography.

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