Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908, in Chanteloupe, France, of prosperous middle-class parents. He owned a Box Brownie as a boy, using it for taking holiday snapshots, and later experimented with a 3 X 4 view camera. But he was also interested in painting and studied for two years in a Paris studio. This early training in art helped develop the subtle and sensitive eye for composition, which was one of his greatest assets as a photographer.
In 1931, at the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson spent a year as a hunter in the West African bush. Catching a case of backwater fever, he returned to France to convalesce. It was at this time, in Marseille, that he first truly discovered photography. He obtained a Leica and began snapping a few pictures with it. It was a pivotal experience. A new world, a new kind of seeing, spontaneous and unpredictable, opened up to him through the narrow rectangle of the 35 mm viewfinder. His imagination caught fire. He recalls how he excitedly “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.”
Thus began one of the most fruitful collaborations between man and machine in the history of photography. He remained devoted to the 35 mm camera throughout his career. The speed, mobility, the large number of exposures per loading, and, above all, the unobtrusiveness of the little camera perfectly fitted his shy, quicksilver personality. Before long he was handling its controls as automatically as an expert racing driver shifts gears. The camera itself, in his own famous phrase, became an “extension of the eye”.