Cartier-Bresson shot for Life, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines, and his work inspired generations of photographers. Cartier-Bresson became a French national treasure, though he was famously averse to having his own picture taken or to giving interviews.
The French Culture Ministry said Cartier-Bresson died Monday and that funeral services were held Wednesday. Media reports said he died in l'Ile-sur-Sorgue in the rural Vaucluse region in southeastern France.
In a statement, French President Jacques Chirac said of Cartier-Bresson: "With him, France loses a genius photographer, a true master, and one of the most gifted artists of his generation and most respected in the world."
"He was perhaps the greatest photographer of the 20th century," said John Morris, who met Cartier-Bresson five days after the Germans left Paris at the end of World War II. In 1947, Cartier-Bresson and three others founded the celebrated agency Magnum Photos; Morris was Magnum's executive editor and Cartier-Bresson's lifelong friend.
Gary Knight, managing director of the cooperative photo agency, VII, called Cartier-Bresson one of the most influential photographers of all time.
"He inspired people, and he defined photography at that crucial period when small cameras were coming into fashion and its entire nature was changing," Knight said.
Whether recording the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi in India or Henri Matisse at home, Cartier-Bresson sought to render the feeling of the moment with his distinctive classical style and penchant for geometrical composition.
"In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between the eye and the heart," he once said in a rare interview. "With the one eye that is closed, one looks within, with the other eye that is open, one looks without."
With his uncanny sense of timing and intuition, Cartier-Bresson captured the presence of places and the cultures of people as distinct as William Faulkner and Chinese revolutionaries.
He disdained arranged photographs and artificial settings and said photographers should shoot accurately and quickly.
His concept of photography centered on what he described as "the decisive moment" — the moment evoking the ultimate significance of a given situation as all the external elements fall perfectly into place.
Cartier-Bresson shot with a Leica, the quietest of cameras, working only with black and white film, and notably, without a flash. Thrusting a subject in the limelight, he once said, was a sure way to destroy it.
He also opposed cropping pictures, saying it diluted the picture's meanings.
While most of his international fame was generated from worldwide exhibitions and publications including Harper's Bazaar, Cartier-Bresson gained recognition from two documentary films he made about medical aid to the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and about French prisoners of war returning home at the end of World War II.
Cartier-Bresson was born Aug. 22, 1908, in Chanteloup outside Paris to a wealthy textile family.
The eldest of three children, he was interested mainly in painting. At 20, he turned his back on the lucrative family business to study art.
In 1930, with a brownie box camera, he started dabbling in photography. Two years later, armed with his Leica, he began a series of photo expeditions to the French Ivory Coast, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany and Italy.
After publishing photos from his travels in several major magazines, Cartier-Bresson had his first exhibition in Madrid in 1933. Later that year he had the first of several major shows in New York.
The brilliant, pioneering shots of the 1930s captured the urban scene, trapping momentary visual delights of life in motion.
Critics said his most brilliant photograph was "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare," which depicts a man leaping over a puddle and frozen in mid-air, with his shadow forming a symmetrical V contrasting to the vertical fence above the railroad tracks.
"Rue Mouffetard," a poignant shot of a grinning youngster carrying two bottles of wine down the Left Bank market street, became one of his most sought-after photos.
Cartier-Bresson also was drawn to the cinema and worked as an assistant director to esteemed French director Jean Renoir on his classic "The Rules of the Game."
He then turned his documentary talents to the Spanish Civil War. At the outbreak of World War II, he was drafted into the French army where he was a corporal in a film and photo unit captured in the Vosges Mountains in June 1940.
After nearly three years in German prison camps, Cartier-Bresson escaped and made his way back to Paris where he divided his time between commercial photography and transporting ex-prisoners for the French underground.
His work during and after the war had the feel of his documentary films, and his pictures emerged as a stunning reportage of the underground resistance and the political drama of postwar Europe.
In 1945, under the aegis of the U.S. Office of War Information, Cartier-Bresson directed "The Return," a highly praised documentary on the homecoming of French prisoners of war.
Two years later, he joined Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger in founding Magnum.
Since then, Cartier-Bresson's photos have been featured in one-man shows in major museums and galleries worldwide. In 1979, the cream of his work was shown at New York's International Center of Photography and then toured for three years to 15 cities in the United States and Mexico.
Among the most famous of his dozen books is "The Decisive Moment," published in 1952, which Cartier-Bresson prefaced with a quote from 17th century writer, Cardinal de Retz: "There is nothing in this world that does not have its decisive moment."
In the last 25 years of his life, Cartier-Bresson largely turned away from photography to embrace his first love, painting. By 1988, he was spending most days sketching in pencil or charcoal at his Paris home or at his retreat in southern France.
His Leica, protected by a handkerchief, was never out of reach.
In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married a Javanese dancer named Ratna Mohini. In 1970, he married Martine Franck with whom he had one daughter, Melanie.