Early Work

“I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life—to preserve life in the act of living.”
—Cartier-Bresson in 1952, recalling his work of the early 1930s


The quickness and mobility of handheld cameras spawned one of the most fruitful artistic traditions to take shape in photography between the two world wars. These new cameras did not merely fix the motion of the subject; they also freed the photographer from virtually all constraints. With a camera in his hand and a few rolls of film in his pocket, Cartier-Bresson never needed to decide if he was working or just living.

Cartier-Bresson was a master of two leading strategies of photography in the 1920s—celebrating action by freezing it, and turning the world into scenes composed of elegant patterns. His most original early pictures transform reality even more decisively. They reinvent the life of the street as Surrealist theater—more surprising, mysterious, and compelling than the world we know.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Hyères, France, 1932. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.