The Men Behind ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ Curtain

Who Took This Photo of Imperial Eunuchs in Peking?

Sometime in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power, three great photographers met in a dimly lit Berlin apartment to create a fourth. Munkasci, Robert Capa, and Chim were all of Jewish origin, and now they found their best work refused by anti-Semitic publications all over Europe. Out of work and starving, the trio decided to create a fictional photographer, under whose non-Jewish name they could publish their work.

So the impeccably bourgeois pseudonym of ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ was born. For American publications, the name would be modified to ‘Hank Carter’. The story of this prank is masterfully recounted in Paolo Rilf’s book, “Cartier-Bresson: A Man, A Myth” (1993). Dr. Rilf was initially puzzled by the fact that there no photographs of Paris or France in the early life of this quintessentially French photographer.

Initially conceived to earn extra money, the pseudonym was to be laid to rest after the war in a ‘posthumous’ MOMA retrospective in 1947. But Capa wanted to poke fun at the pretentious New York museum; for eight hundred francs, he hired a Parisian wine-merchant to pose as camera-shy Cartier-Bresson.

Around this time, the photo-agency Magnum was founded to pool photographs of many a lensman for Cartier-Bresson’s debut book. In the coming years, using the byline ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ enabled many photographers to travel anonymously in troubled hotspots around the world; in 1948, he famously reported from India, China, and Indonesia. Dr. Rilf’s book, long out of print but going to be reissued later today (April 1st), is a masterful tale which doubles as a detective thriller.

24 thoughts on “The Men Behind ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ Curtain”

  1. This is fascinating and not at all what Wikipedia says. There is no mention of this potential myth on Wiki, even on the talk page. Intrigued now and must find out more

    1. How curious also that there should be no mention of Paolo Rilfe’s book in any library catalogue… wonder if the date has anything to do with it?

  2. This is incredible. With Hank Carter now removed from my short list of photo heroes I have only Alfred Eisenberger and Edwin Adams remaining.

  3. This story was explained in the rarely translated book of the Nigerian photo-historian whose name I’ve forgotten and it is wonderful to see it gets the attention it deserves. It fills a much needed gap in the literature.

  4. The first tip off that HCB was a fictional convenience was the story that he used only a 50mm lens for all his work. This is impossible. Real photographers carry at least three lenses and two bodies at all times.

    1. The truth, according to Charlie Rose (the American television talk show host and journalist), is that HCB only used a 50mm camera. He stated so during his interview with HCB, and HCB did not deny it.

  5. Well, I’m certainly glad you’ve finally exposed this myth for all to see. Rilf’s book has gotten way too little attention imo !! You know what they say about lies travelling half way around the world while the truth is still pulling the lens cap off the lens.

  6. SIR,

    The below links make me horrible memory about Jewish in my life.

    Were 4000 Jews Told To Stay Home On 9/11? – Now The End Begins…/were-4000-jews-told-to-stay-home-o…Cached – Similar

    You +1’d this publicly. Undo

    The ‘No Jews Killed In 9/11’ Rumor Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned Saturday the death toll in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the …

    How can a human enjoy himself I escape from the death and I dont care people whom I see daily life all is trapped. I myself involved a dangerous butchery (slot a cow) when I was a 9th grade school boy. The butcher force me to help kill the cow and I was helped the brutal killing (The butcher hit the cow in between the hones by an axe). After the animal falls I run away but I still remember the terrible memory was happened like yesterday.

    NB You dont want approach me with cheep tricks because I was discovered all 26th June 2001 and no one can eliminate the truth. Better stop sending E-mails to my mail box.

    George +971507469676
    Date: Mon, 1 Apr 2013 12:23:24 +0000

  7. This explains HBC’s photos from the Tour de France’s he covered! It always seemed like he was in more places than possible! Do check out the check out the collection “Cartier-Bresson on Bikes” when you get a chance. At times it seemed like he was at the beginning and end of Alpe d’Huez!

  8. Totally fell for it and went to the Wikipedia page, all confused. (In my defense, I’m reading this on the 9th, so the April Fool’s aspect didn’t come to mind.)

    Fabulous prank!

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