A Surrealist Photographer
[ HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON ]
What do the Surrealist Manifesto
and Cartier-Bresson have to do
with each other? After his 1947
show at the Museum of Modern
Art, Robert Capa advised Cartier-
Bresson to stop calling himself a
Surrealist Photographer. Years
later Cartier-Bresson agreed
that Capa’s advice was sound.
While in university we were given a collection of artist manifestos. Artists and revolutionaries share an interest in redesigning society. They declare their new ideals in manifestos, not much different than the Declaration of Independence. It gives supporters a chance to agree with their proposed ideals and join the cause.
André Breton was a French poet who penned two surrealist manifestos. The first was written in 1924 and the second followed a few years later in 1927. If you asked me three weeks ago what I remembered from those essays I would have told you, “Almost nothing.”
The paintings of the Surrealists are burned in my memory, but the literary roots were fuzzy. I decided to revisit Breton’s first and second manifestos on account of Cartier-Bresson’s claim as a Surrealist Photographer. I wanted to know why he would choose Surrealism to describe his work. My guess was that somewhere in the manifestos was a hint that would explain Cartier-Bresson’s selection process. I was right.
The mind of a twenty year old immersed in college is much different than a professional who lives without the distraction of picking up girls, spending endless hours at the pub, and sleeping till noon. Re-reading the Surrealist Manifesto’s after studying Cartier-Bresson was an eye opening experience. The working methods of the surrealists uncovered many of the motivations behind Cartier-Bresson’s designs.
A Working Knowledge
I would like to take a second to make a brief distinction in how we might approach art history. Most of us have limited access to museum archives, too many responsibilities to camp out in the library, and prefer to research in book stores or on the internet. A photographer does not need a PhD to study art history. We need a “WORKING KNOWLEDGE” of artists. What does that mean? We want to know:
- Who they are?
- What did they did?
- Who were their influences? (Remember even Cartier-Bresson admits, there are no new ideas, just new arrangements of them.”
- How they fit into a broader picture?
In order to achieve a working knowledge of an artist we do not need to memorize dates, exhibition titles or names of pieces. Footnote details are for academics who pour over research material. And for the most part academics do not understand design, because they do not need it for their work. I am in the middle of reading a book on Caravaggio and the author claims that Caravaggio’s paintings are his primary interest. But one hundred pages into the book I have not seen a single mention of a Root Rectangle. It appears that he possesses a rudimentary understanding of design.
The point is, as photographers, we have a very different set of needs when it comes to art history. We would rather know “How can I apply the lessons of the past to my own work?” Good luck finding any academic who could give you an ounce of design advice. It would be nice if at the end of a book on Caravaggio it might say, ”And…if you liked his work, you might want to employ the following techniques that he repeated and refined throughout his career.” That would be my favorite chapter. For simplicity sake you will find that artists all have similar patterns.
- They start off making terrible work that someone thinks is good. If they are lucky they accidentally stumbled on to a good design.
- Then, they are trained/exposed to real artists usually through an apprenticeship or school.
- They make terribly derivative work in their early years or they destroy the early work so no one can see it. Copying the master is frowned upon today, but it is extremely important in the development of an artist. It allows them to piggy back on the accomplishments of previous generations. Otherwise they always start from square one. Re-inventing the wheel is overrated.
- Then they work out a number of design problems for the balance of their career. This is where a really good artist shines. Caravaggio did not make a decent painting until well into his twenties.
- If they run out of ideas, they repeat a successful formula until it no longer sells.
Surrealist Manifesto, The Short Version
André Breton, who wrote the Surrealist Manifestos, was a poet not a visual artist. During the 1920’s the Breton and his friends were influenced by Sigmund Freud’s dream analysis. They believed that a super-reality existed beyond our waking life. The only way to access this world was through dreams or studying autonomous actions (more on that term later). As many of us know, dreams feel very real while being entirely nonsensical.
Imagine that after World War I the Surrealists saw much of Western Civilization going the wrong direction. They wanted to make a break from the rational, harmonic, and logical systems which connected Ancient Greece to Modern Europe. In short, they were sick of it all and wanted to change Life itself.
They were an ambitious lot. They wanted their movement to transform the world. Pretty heavy stuff for a bunch of guys with paint brushes and pencils. Instead of the classical traditions they wanted to explore the subconscious dream realms.
Two Main Schools
The Surrealists are a curious movement because unlike other artistic movements like the Italian Futurists, the Russian Constructivists, French Fauves or the Spanish Cubists they did not working in matching styles. Painter’s like Rene Magritte could never be mistaken for Joan Miró. The thread which bound the Surrealist was based in their approach, not their final product. In order to make sense of the movement as a whole, we can drive a cleaver through their body of work, dividing it in half.
I. Biomorphic Abstraction
My apologies for that ridiculous name of (I.) Biomorphic Abstraction means shapes that parts of the painting resemble simple organisms which could be mistaken for something you might find under a microscope or in a telescope. Artists like Mirò, Yves Tanguy, and Roberto Matta worked in imagery worlds that could be mistaken for something at the bottom of the ocean or in outer space. They are clearly not machine made or mechanical.
Their inspiration: “…calligraphy, animation, and movement are essentials regardless of their subjects represented.”
Artists: Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Joan Miró, Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Hèrold & Wilfredo Lam.
II. The Descriptives
The second school are “The descriptives who were inspired by De Chirico. With the former (school), the idea is simply suggested without concern for exact representation: with the later the scene is unreal, but the setting, the objects and the human figures which comprise it are painted with fidelity.”
Their inspiration: Lautremont’s definition of beauty,
“Beautiful as the unexpected meeting, on the dissection table
of a sowing machine and an umbrella.”
They would take pieces from dreams, which made no sense, mash them together in a painting and interpret the meanings. Its a dangerous formula because it generates a tremendous amount of garbage, but occasionally it works.
Artists: De Chirico, Renè Magritte, Salvador Dali, Paul Delvaux, Marcel Duchamp & Toyen
How can two drastically different schools exist under the same umbrella? Its easy. They used nearly identical approaches to their work. They would interpret their dreams, draw with their eyes closed or select objects at random. Then they would study the results. After which they would make art work. The technique was called Automatism because it was an automatic or immediate action, without thought, which was supposed to originate in the realm of the super reality.
I found it very interesting to note that their techniques were essentially lifted from Freud. From the outset Freud did not know what his patients were going to reveal, but through analysis he discovered patterns. Now, whether those patterns have any basis in truth is an entirely different conversation, but the formula is pretty basic.
Do something without thinking + Have some way of recording the findings + Study the results = Surrealism
This is an overly generalized summary and certainly not one I would use for your thesis paper on Surrealism, but its enough to give you a working knowledge of what the Surrealists were up to in their art.
How does this relate to photography and Cartier-Bresson? In 1947 Henri Cartier-Bresson was part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Robert Capa warned him that labeling himself a Surrealist Photographer would be commercial suicide. The label would prevent him from receiving jobs. In Capa’s opinion, it did not matter what Cartier-Bresson photographed, it needed to be called Photojournalism. Years later in “The Decisive Moment” film Cartier-Bresson thanked his friend for such sound advice. He was a Surrealist Photographer, but that was his business. He did not like journalism, but he needed jobs. Fact telling was a boring endeavor to Cartier-Bresson. Surrealism and later Buddhism were the power which drove his images.
In an effort to keep the entries tidy, I am breaking this article into three parts. We will look at the roles of:
I. The Scherzo
III. Imagination Versus Reality
V. Figures In A Dream
VI. World In A Box
I. The Scherzo
Scherzo is the Italian word for a “joke.” It is commonly used by classical musicians to describe short pieces of music. The pieces are designed to be played with speed and a touch of humor. They allow for a playful expression of an idea. Cartier-Bresson has a wonderful sense of humor. He likes to play with disconnected elements in a scene and use the camera to frame them into one image. The combination of seemingly unrelated elements adds a strength to the picture and usually a good laugh.
Have you ever noticed a Cartier-Bresson image and thought, Why did he take that picture? Its not quite journalism, it does not possess a grand narrative, or a scene of horror. Its just a funny quirky image. Under the surface of these scherzos are masterfully crafted designs and a Surrealists sensibility for contradiction, absurdity, and solitude.
These pictures, of which Cartier-Bresson did quite a few, I consider to be scherzos. They are jokes about life. They are deeply rooted in the Surrealist notions of the absurdity which occurs in dreams. We can just picture Cartier-Bresson walking along, watching a scene develop and getting a little chuckle. In his mind he is saying, “Yes, yes, that’s good and BANG!” His subjects have no idea that what they are doing is connected to something else in the scene. It is a private moment that only Cartier-Bresson would have observed.
| LION TAMER |
In the image of the young girl, Cartier-Bresson must have seen this girl stomping away as if she owned the world. As we saw in my earlier article he sets up the scene, waits, and hits the precise moment when it looked as if she was leading the lions. What a preposterous idea, a young child leading four angry lions?! Its brilliant, especially for anyone who has children. Sometimes the smallest creature controls the larger beasts. The little girl, the man asleep on the bed, and the woman in the doorway are all unaware of the composition. Only Cartier-Bresson was able to see the humor in the girl marching along and caught a moment when she pulls the lions across the wall. He knows what he is looking for and waits for the picture.
| ANGELS |
Back in Europe, in the small town of Aviliano Italy, Cartier-Bresson finds a new set of children. This time the kids are playing with a bicycle. There is nothing dramatic about the scene. They could be plotting, but they could just be playing. The key to the image lies in the angels on the top of the image. As every Italian mother would love to believe, the angels are watching over her babies. Cartier-Bresson places the angels against a light background which allows them to hover over the young boys. It is not everyday we see angels hovering over children. Its like a dream sequence that Cartier-Bresson brings to life. He marries the children and their angels inside of a 35mm frame. He does not concern himself with a clear interpretation of the scene. He opens it up for the viewer to question. This is one of the reasons why Cartier-Bresson’s images are so profound because they are clear but open questions.
| TIME |
Across the Mediterranean in Turkey, Cartier-Bresson discovers a watch repair shop. If we recall Cartier-Bresson grew up in the age of Relativity. In the 1920’s a young Swiss patent officer turned the world on its head with the Theory of Relativity, the art world has never been the same. Artists have been fiddling with the concept of relative time ever since Einstein.
Cartier-Bresson liked to play with the idea of time. The photograph is a fraction of a second, preserved forever. It is fleeting and constant all at the same time. This photograph is instantly connected to Salvador Dali, but it plays with time in a more subtle manner. The clock, the man, and the case of watches are all frozen in time. At any moment when we view this image, it is 8:25 somewhere in the world. Time is always and forever. The man is preserved only in the photo. He surely died decades ago. He is placed between the large clock and the small collection of wrist watches. Time is all around him, racing him to the finish line. The race seems to be getting the better part of our dear Turkish watch repair man. Cartier-Bresson must have looked at this pitiful scene and seen a man tortured by time. He floats like an object, no different than the clocks in a sea of shapes.
When Cartier-Bresson travelled he preferred long trips. He did not like short trips and preferred to take trains, boats, or planes when possible. What a marvelous luxury to travel for an extended period of time, only sprinkled with deadlines. But as any traveler knows, life on the road can be lonely. It leads to self examination much in the way that Freud analyzed his patients. Alone in a foreign country we pay close attention to our thoughts and actions. We constantly compare the our surroundings to our expectations until we dissolve into the local crowds. Life abroad is like a dream. The sun rises and falls the same way, but everything in between feels surreal. The players are the same but the scene things are never quite right.
The camera is both a window into the world and also a mirror. Did Cartier-Bresson see himself as a camera or a mirror? Whichever way we choose to interpret the image, it is clear Cartier-Bresson was constantly playing the figure against the scene in search of humor and meaning.
| A BLOCK OF SWISS |
Many of the Surrealists works seem to float in space. The shapes have no weight and they swim in a field of color. The first school of painters was fascinated with ideas suspended in the mind. When we think of where an idea exists, its very hard to describe the space. Ideas feel like they come from a boundless plane where they pop up form nowhere. The surrealists painters depicted their images free from the rules of gravity. Shapes and lines swim around in complete rejection of Newton’s Laws of gravity.
In Switzerland, Cartier-Bresson finds a scene where gravity could be deadly. The shapes of the photograph are nearly floating. This is due to the fact that they are mostly back lit. They do not read like three dimensional objects. They are flat cut outs. Cartier-Bresson breaks all the rules of lighting he learned from Andre Lhote and gives us a Surrealist view of a man about to be crushed by a box. All of the forms are clean rectangles, triangles, and scribbled waves. The picture is a comical collection of pencil marks with a strange undertone. Once we recognize the figure it looks as if he is standing in a very dangerous place. The counter wight for the ski lift is hanging just a few feet above his head.
Cartier-Bresson’s composition isolates the figure. He is placed for us (the viewers) to see. We can see the danger, but he is unconcerned with the thousands of pounds hanging over his head. This menacing scene was probably not dangerous at all. Cartier-Bresson used to say, “The camera is a weapon. You cannot prove anything with it, but it is still a weapon.” From a specific angle the scene is funny and dangerous. The questions it raises about the fragility of human life, which might be crushed at any minute. Our individual interpretations will vary from person to person. But Cartier-Bresson’s skill lies in his ability to pass his moments of self reflection on to us. And then he throws in a touch of humor for good measure.
| THE NEWSPAPER |
Have you ever read the morning paper and felt trapped? The headlines of any paper can be oppressive. I have always found most newspapers too depressing to read with any regularity. Cartier-Bresson takes the idea of being overwhelmed by the news to a new level. He suggests it decapitates us. The head of the subject is replaced with an enormous knot. He is stripped of his identity. We are given a nameless body with a knot for a head. Its enough to make you laugh out loud.
In keeping with the Surrealist tradition of automatism, I doubt Cartier-Bresson formed the interpretation of the picture before he took it. More likely he saw a bizarre arrangement of elements and took the picture. Upon reflection he discovered the meanings the same way the Surrealists would have done. But he was always on the look out for strange arrangements that might have meaning behind them.
| WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING |
What do we do when no one is watching? Are we ethical in our dreams or insane? There is no need to answer the question, but it is useful to ask ourselves as we wander through a new city. Artists like De Chirico played the human figure against the backdrop of imaginary cityscapes. He questioned our relationship to history, cities, and our own bodies. The overall feeling was one of discomfort because nothing fit quite right. The statues were too big, the figures were too small. Nothing harmonized and reflected the emotional unrest of Europe after World War I.
When Cartier-Bresson found this image of a boy scaling a wall, it begs the question, “What is he doing?” Again we see Cartier-Bresson focused on a moment where his subject is alone. Is this a portrait of how Cartier-Bresson views his own travels or is it a mischievous moment in a young boys life? Its probably a little bit of both. Unlike the picture of the boys with the angels, this boy may have a different spirit floating behind him. Remember Cartier-Bresson did eventually escape from a Nazi work camp during World War II (the third time was a charm). As a life long anarchist he was certainly no stranger to trouble. He may have recognized something of himself in this young lad as he climbed the around the walls of Matera Italy.
| REAL SHADOWS |
A shadow hardly exists, but follow us everywhere. We cannot touch it, pick it up, or escape from it. But from above the person flattens into a blob and we only see the shadow. There is no tool better than the camera for shadow play. Cartier-Bresson loved to reverse the roles of objects and people. Here we see the shadow as the subject and the people as scribble. I imagine that as Cartier-Bresson travelled the world he thought about his existence. After he died, what would remain of Cartier-Bresson? He would exist, or at least his work would exist, as a collection of positive and negative shapes.
The realization the he was a living shadow, surely had an influence on his work. Looking down from a window above he must have laughed at the absurdity of these two figures climbing the stairs. From his view point, the shadows are more precise than their own forms.
I remember a few years ago, traveling in India, I had a strange thought. A traveler is felt more when they leave than when they are present. While we are in a place, we exist because we talk to people, we can shake their hands, and exchange stories. But this always comes to an end. But once we are gone, the memory of our presence exists for much longer than our visit. We are locked in the minds of the people we met, forever suspended as the people we were at the precise moment we left them. Then when we go back years later, you always hear one of two things, “Oh, you have changed so much!” or “You have not changed a bit!” We are always compared to a shadow of our former selves. I think, though I never heard it from Cartier-Bresson, that his is playing with the idea of how we travel through space as visitors. The line between reality and imagination is not clear. By moving our camera a few millimeters we can choose between reality and surreality.
Within all of Cartier-Bresson’s mental games, he never looses sight his designs. He had a life long interest in art and studying Master paintings. Its worth noting that he was only able to play out the riddles of the Surrealists because all of the images are clear. They have good subject to ground relationships, the figures are carefully set on a major division of the 1.5 rectangle, and there are no distracting elements that detract from his image. Cartier-Bresson’s intuition sit at the forefront of the picture because he is fully grounded in the fundamentals.
Join me for Part II of our exploration of Cartier-Bresson, the Surrealist Photographer.