1947 found Henri Cartier-Bresson in India to document her independence. As the result of several years’ close friendship with Mahatma Gandhi, his family and closest friends, Cartier-Bresson was easily granted a photo session with Gandhi (something not all photographers can hope for). As soon as Gandhi broke his last fast, Cartier-Bresson managed to photograph Gandhi. Among these photos, which he took for LIFE, was the last photo taken of Gandhi when he was alive.
Fifteen minutes after HCB took this picture and left Gandhi’s Brila House, he heard shouts that Gandhi had been assassinated. He ran back and took the pictures of Gandhi’s family at his deathbed. However, the most emotional picture of the night is yet to come—the above picture that carried with it the cries and wails of the entire subcontinent. That night, visibly shocked Prime Minister of India, Mr. Nehru would announce the death of Mahatma Gandhi to the crowd outside his home.
Cartier-Bresson vividly remembered how he came to possess this iconic image. There was an anguished mob outside the Brila House, he recounted, and he took that picture at ¼ s., at I.5, by holding his breath. It was an extremely challenging shot for the photographer who never used flash. The photo was an accurate reflection of the moment that could be called the Hindu Götterdämmerung. Nehru’s face appeared slightly blurred, the face of an English officer sitting next to him was half-lit, while ghastly lights beamed at the camera from various directions. It is as if Cartier-Bresson’s Leica had captured the great Gothic moment our limited human mind cannot fathom.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote back to Gandhi, who had sought advice from the aging Russian author, and pointed out the absurdity of the situation in India where 30,000 British officials and soldiers enslaved 200 million Indians. “Do not the figures alone make it clear that not the English, but the Hindus themselves are the cause of their slavery?” Gandhi searched for an issue that would unite all Indians, and when his Declaration of Independence of India failed to do so in January 1930, he subsequently embarked on a new breed of non-violent protest.
Gandhi’s symbolic flouting of the tax on salt, “the only condiment of the poor”, did not end British rule; that took another 17 years and a world war. But Gandhi’s effort revealed the absurdity of the colonial system: the British monopoly that forced locals to pay prices up to 2,000% greater than its production costs, outlawed that the sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government. On March 24th 1930, soon after saying his customary dawn prayers, Gandhi emerged from his ashram to greet a crowd of thousands gathered to witness the start of his most defiant protest to date. A foreign educated, and master manipulator of media, Gandhi ensured that three Bombay film teams were on hand so that his protests, well-attended to thousands, was seen by millions. A volunteer band raised its horns to play God Save the King before it realized that a rousing salute to the English sovereign was not an appropriate send-off. Their fading notes were overtaken by the sound of coconuts being smashed together, a traditional Hindu sign of devotion.
Gandhi, leaning on a lacquered bamboo staff, soon set out along the winding, dusty road. His destination: Dandi, 240 miles away, where 25 days later he would collect a few grains of salt in defiance of the salt tax. Following his lead, thousands of Indian villagers would wade into the sea to extract salt themselves. Thus marked the beginning of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign–and of the demise of the British Empire.
It was the defining portrait of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, but the picture almost didn’t happen. LIFE magazine’s first female photographer, Margaret Bourke-White was in India in 1946 to cover the impending Indian independence. She was all set to shoot when Gandhi’s secretaries stopped her: If she was going to photograph Gandhi at the spinning wheel (a symbol for India’s struggle for independence), she first had to learn to use one herself.
It was a rare photo-op and Bourke-White was not going to lose it. She learnt how to use the spinning wheel, but further demands followed–Gandhi wasn’t to be spoken to (it being his day of silence.) And because he detested bright light, Bourke-White was only allowed to use three flashbulbs. The humid Indian weather wreaked havoc on her camera equipment, too. She tried to take the picture without flash, but the bright Indian day hindered her further. [Less than stellar pictures can be seen here and here]
When time finally came to shoot, Bourke-White’s first flashbulb failed. And while the second one worked, she forgot to pull the slide, rendering it blank.She thought it was all over, but luckily, the third attempt was successful. In the end, she came away with an image that became Gandhi’s most enduring representation.