Beijing by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1949

When Magnum Photos was allocating work regions in the aftermath of WWII, Cartier-Bresson chose to work in Asia, with the decolonization of Asian countries as his main focus. In late 1948, LIFE magazine realized that the Kuomintang was about to be defeated on the mainland China and wanted to have a reporter on the ground.

The magazine asked Cartier-Bresson to go to Beijing (then known as Peiping) and take photos of “China’s finest scholars, merchants, opera lovers, bankers, bird fanciers, jade cravers, rug weavers, gourmets, artists, furniture makers, cloisonne craftsmen, restauranteurs, students, rickshaw boys, servants, camel train drivers, temple guides and their emotions and actions on momentous eve of Chinese history.”

Cartier-Bresson, then in Burma, flew to Beijing on December 3. After staying in Beijing for 10 days, he left for Shanghai when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arrived. He kept extensive notes of that time. He was in the habit of buying cans of 100 meters of film and cutting them into single rolls of negatives. In China, however, he was not able to develop the photos on site due to time and equipment constraints, and after each roll, he would make detailed notes of what was in each roll with help of his wife and guides such as Jim Burke (in Beijing) and Sam Tata (in Shanghai).

Cartier-Bresson also did not know what was being published as he was in China. Although LIFE originally engaged him for two weeks, he stayed in China ten months, mainly in the Shanghai area, witnessing the fall of the city of Nanjing held by Kuomintang, then forced to stay in Shanghai under Communist control for four months, leaving China on one of the last ships to Hong Kong a few days before the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (1 October 1949). LIFE published 26 photos of his Beijing photos in a special report (A Last Look at Peiping) in January 1949, but he would only see it months later in May 1949.

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