Leibovitz remembers, as a young painting student at the San Francisco Art Institute, studying one of the iconic photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most famous images. The now illustrious American portrait photographer found the image in the university’s library, in a newly published book titled The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

A member of the French army during the Second World War, Cartier-Bresson escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1943 and joined a French underground photographic unit, covering the liberation of France and the retreat of the German army. In the spring of 1945, he found himself photographing a displaced persons camp in Dessau, Germany, between the American and Soviet zones. ‘The photograph shows the moment when a Gestapo informant is confronted by a woman she betrayed,’ Leibovitz writes. ‘The informant is humiliated, the betrayed woman in a rage and about to strike a blow, the spectators in thrall at the scene – all conveyed with great simplicity.’

In the catalogue of a new exhibition ‘Le Grand Jeu’, on show now at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Leibovitz says: ‘Seeing Cartier-Bresson’s work made me want to become a photographer. The idea that a photographer could travel with a camera to different places, see how other people lived, make looking a mission — that that could be your life was an amazing, thrilling idea.’

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dimanche sur les bords de Seine, France, 1938, gelatin silver print, 1973. © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. Selected by Annie Leibovitz as part of her curated section of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ at Palazzo Grassi

The exhibition’s title ‘Le Grand Jeu’ is a reference to the group of photographs that Cartier-Bresson, the man now best known for coining the term ‘the decisive moment’, considered to be his ‘Master Collection’. The selection was made in 1972, in Houston, in the home of the renowned photography collectors John and Dominique de Menil. 

When Cartier-Bresson stayed with them one summer, they asked the French photographer to compile his selection. Almost 50 years later, the 385 photographs he chose for the de Menils have been gathered at Palazzo Grassi, in an exhibition born of a partnership between the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Pinault Collection and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.But, as a way of providing an additional element of curation to Cartier-Bresson’s selection, the exhibition’s overall curator,

Matthieu Humery, invited five co-curators to provide their response to Cartier-Bresson’s work. Annie Leibovitz was one of those curators, alongside art historian Sylvie Aubenas, writer Javier Cercas, collector François Pinault and film director Wim Wenders. Each had to follow a basic rule; they were to choose 50 images from amongst the 385. Beyond that, they were given free reign to do whatever they liked with the sequencing and editing of Cartier-Bresson’s work.

‘You can see the way Cartier-Bresson composed. How he found a situation that he liked and then waited for something to happen within it’

To contend with the task, Leibovitz first pinned all the photographs, which she had printed the size of index cards, in rows on a wall of her studio. She then picked out the pictures that had a strong influence on her work and remained etched on her mind from her time as a student. ‘Some of the photographs I chose are hard to look at. Some of them are important, famous pictures because of their subjects,’ Leibovitz says.

‘You can see the way Cartier-Bresson composed. How he found a situation that he liked and then waited for something to happen within it. How there is something going on in the foreground and something else in the background or in another part of the scene. It’s almost the way your eye sees. Something is happening in front of you, and something else is happening farther off. It’s interesting to see what he does over and over again.’

Installation view of Annie Leibovitz’s curated section in ‘Le Grand Jeu’ at Palazzo Grassi, Venice

Leibovitz met Cartier-Bresson once, in 1976, when she was a young photographer at Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner, the magazine’s editor, asked her to work on a special issue of the magazine, in which she would make a series of portraits of other photographers. Included were Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Helmut Newton and Ansel Adams.

Leibovitz wrote a letter to Cartier-Bresson at his home in Paris and got no response. ‘So I made a pilgrimage to Paris to find him. I didn’t have an appointment. I just went to the Magnum office and he happened to be there,’ she says. Leibovitz walked home with Cartier-Bresson before having lunch at his house. ‘But he continued to refuse to let me photograph him or interview him,’ she says. 

‘I made a pilgrimage to Paris to find him. I didn’t have an appointment. I just went to the Magnum office and he happened to be there. But he continued to refuse to let me photograph him or interview him’ 

Leibovitz left without a portrait, and had a sleepless night. Early the next morning, she went back to a footbridge they had walked over the day before. ‘It was on his way to Magnum, and I thought that maybe he would come there again,’ she says. ‘It was neutral territory.’ After an hour, Cartier-Bresson appeared on the street, and Leibovitz started taking pictures without him being aware of her presence.

‘When he realised that the person taking photographs was me, he started yelling,’ Leibovitz remembers. ‘I didn’t understand everything he said, because I was concentrating on the pictures, but the gist was that I had betrayed him,’ Leibovitz says.

‘He composed himself, and we walked together to the Magnum office. Along the way he explained that he didn’t want to be photographed because he felt that he wouldn’t be able to do his work on the street if people knew what he looked like,’ Leibovitz says. ‘They would behave differently if they knew he was taking their picture. This is something I only understand now.’ §

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bougival, France, 1956, gelatin silver print, 1973 © Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. Selected by Annie Leibovitz for her curated section in ‘Le Grand Jeu’