On 25 November 1948, Henri Cartier-Bresson was commissioned by Life magazine to shoot a story on the “last days of Beijing” before the arrival of the Maoist troops. Having completed a trip for two weeks, he went on to stay for 10 months, mainly in the Shanghai area, witnessing the fall of the Nationalist-held city of Nanjing. He was forced to stay in Communist Shanghai for four months following this, leaving China a few days before the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1, 1949.
This long stay in China proved to be a seminal moment in the history of photojournalism: the reportage series from which this image comes was made at the beginning of the Magnum Photos agency, which Henri Cartier-Bresson had co-founded in New York in 1947. The collective brought a new, less event-based, more poetic and detached style, its images attentive as much to the people as to their balance of composition. A great many of these photos remain among the most famous in photography (such as “Gold Rush in Shanghai”). One of the repercussions of “China 1948-1949” was that, from the fifties onwards, Henri Cartier-Bresson became a major benchmark in “new” photojournalism and the renaissance of photography in general. The books The Decisive Moment (Verve, 1952) and D’une Chine à l’autre (Delpire, 1954), prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre, confirmed this supremacy.