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Cartier-Bresson: A master's black-and-white world

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"Hyères, France" (1932) is an arresting image of a boy whizzing by on a bicycle. The camera literally arrests his speed as he rounds a curve, which elegantly echoes a flight of stairs spiraling down. "I prowled the streets all day," Cartier-Bresson explained, "feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to 'trap' life – to preserve life in the act of living." One can almost see him roaming the boulevards, stalking his prey: juxtapositions that yield surprising epiphanies.

Already an artist with a distinct visual voice, during the next 30 years of his prolific career Cartier-Bresson brought unique skills to the profession he virtually created: photojournalist. An original member of the prestigious Magnum Photos founded in 1947, after World War II Cartier-Bresson was a man on the move. Assigned to capture pivotal events that define our modern world, he tirelessly crisscrossed continents and oceans.

Fortunately, a harmonic convergence of talent and tools occurred. Technology put a lightweight, hand-held camera loaded with fast-exposure film in Cartier-Bresson's hands just as mass-circulation picture magazines such as Life and Harper's Bazaar became popular. Cartier-Bresson took off like a comet, combining his eye for composition with voracious inquisitiveness.

Eyes, hands, and two feet are what Cartier-Bresson said it took to be a photojournalist. As he trotted all over the world, it seemed as though he had the whole globe in his viewfinder. Wherever there was a society in transition (countries emerging from colonialism like India, Burma, and Indonesia; the Soviet Union after Stalin's death; China during Mao's Great Leap Forward push to industrialize; mass hysteria after Gandhi's assassination), Cartier-Bresson was there.

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