Dec 012011


In Part II of this series we will 

look at how Cartier-Bresson 

uses contradictions to undermine 

the  stability of everyday life.  

Strange things are happening all 

around us, but it takes a keen 

eye to find them with a camera.  


FRANCE. Indre-et-Loire. Huismes. 1955. German painter, Max ERNST. © Henri Cartier-Bresson


In Part I we briefly explored the origins of the Surrealists and their aims as an artistic movement.  Its was originally designed for poets, but was adapted by painters, film makers, and photographers.  The classical aims of art prior to the Surrealists were based on observing nature or creating idealized scenarios (pre-Photoshop).  The Surrealists were fed up with serenity.  Through the teachings of Freud, they wanted to peer over the cliff straight into the unknown.  In a world with one God, right & wrong, subjective & objective, Cartier-Bresson found a world where contradictions existed at the same time.


Street Photography is an abused term.  Its only competitor for abused phrases is the “Decisive Moment.”  Both phrases used to refer to fleeting moments of time, outside of a studio, where a photographer captured a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Now I see it more referring to any snapshot taken on the street, which may have a subject in motion.  Just because an image was taken on the street does not make it “Street Photography.”    A great street photographer faces all the same issues as a painter, except they have only one or two chances to pull of the shot.  They cannot ask someone to go back and do that again.  After the moment passes, the subjects go their separate ways and the image is gone.

“Life is once, forever.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

Dogs don't worry about existential problems. Its probably why they are so happy. USA. New York City. 1946. © Elliot Erwitt

Without getting too philosophical, there are a number of contradictions that have plagued humanity for centuries.  This makes me appreciate Elliot Erwitt’s Dogs because dogs are not bother by questions of existence.  They worry about the important things, food, love, and other dogs behinds.  We, however, are perpetually occupied with ideas which bend our brains:

  • Life & Death
  • Youth & Age
  • Old & New
  • Right & Wrong

Visualizing the impossible. Painted Plaster Mask. René Magritte

In the millions of pages dedicated to the subjects above. In 50,000 years of recorded history no one has reached a definitive answer.  At best a good thinker has only generated more questions.  This is exactly what Cartier-Bresson’s images of contradiction do to the viewer.  He is not answering anything, he simply declares that contradictions exist together.  It is our perception that allows them to be visible.

When we consider that Cartier-Bresson spent a considerable about of time traveling through India, China, and Japan we begin to understand how the duality of eastern religions influenced his photography.  It is widely known that Cartier-Bresson appreciated the book “Zen and the Art of Archery,” but why was it influential?  If we take a closer look at the idea of contradiction we will open another door inside the maze that is the Surrealist Photographer.

JAPAN. Kyoto. Daitoku-ji Temple. 1965. © Henri Cartier-Bresson


If someone told you they WERE their photo, you might think they were mad.  How can we be a photo?

We spend our entire lives trying to figure out who we are, what would it mean to be ourselves and our subject?  As Cartier-Bresson left his native Europe for Colonial India, he encountered a world where the Hindu gods, like Siva, who destroys in order to make room for creation.  This is very different from the ideas of Heaven and Hell or God and the Devil.  Eastern Religions are centered around the idea of inter-connectedness.  This means that nothing exists on its own and contradictions are an illusion.  Unlike the teachings of the Church (which I endured as a child raised Protestant, who was educated in Catholic schools) good and evil are not considered separate entities.  They are two sides of the same phenomenon.

If we recall from Part I, the Surrealist goal was to transform the world.  A drastic change is only possible by a complete overhaul of commonly accepted ideas.  My guess is the impact of Hindu culture was so profound for Cartier-Bresson that it changed the way he saw the world.   To support his epiphany, he kept an eye out for any scene that could capture a major contradiction in one frame.  He was about to forget about his bow and arrow and become the target.

HCB WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall. © Henri Cartier-Bresson


There is a surge of images in Cartier-Bresson’s archives after his trips to India in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  This lead me to believe that India unlocked something in his approach to photography.   Back in Europe after World War II, he traveled through the continent.  He made a number of striking pictures around the division of East and West Germany.  He stated early on in his career that times of transition make for good pictures.  The picture of the soldier and the one legged man may not be his first effort at contradiction ever, but it is a fine example of an image that asks a clear question using the visual language as its vehicle.

HCB plays a 1,2,3 rhythm of the lamp post, the soldier and the man on his crutches. WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

The young soldier looks well fed, properly dressed and able bodied.  In contrast to the older man, who we can only assume lost his leg in the war.  It contrasts young and healthy with older and disfigured.  In all reality this specific soldier probably had nothing to do with this man loosing his leg.  Though I imagine there was a lot of resentment between generations in Germany after the war.  The success of the image stems from it capturing the lasting effects of the war and the next generation all at the same time.  Each man exists in a new world that is both part of the war and a product of its outcome.

Castille-Léon. Salamanque 1963. © Henri Cartier-Bresson


Not all contradictions are so brutal.  In Salamanque Spain, Cartier-Bresson found a scene that distills the passage of time down to the flip of a skirt.  This is certainly not a picture I would recommend recreating, unless it is your child in the picture.  Photographs of bare bottomed children have developed a completely new stigma since this photo was made in 1963.  But all issues aside and understanding Cartier-Bresson’s intentions, the photograph works well.

HCB plays a 1,2 rhythm from top to bottom and breaks all the rules by placing everything on the central divisions of the photo. Its great how he even plays the living tree off of the dead one in the background. Castille-Léon. Salamanque 1963. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

He pairs a simple visual rhythm of light and dark all the way down the frame.  Starting from the top, where an engaged column of the church sits dead center in the frame, he plays opposing figures throughout the whole image.  (note: as you study Cartier-Bresson you will discover that he often plays a background feature right in the middle of an image, once again undermining the photo instructions that say do not put anything on the horizon).  Then it culminates in a contrasting pair of elderly women and playful young girls.  There are many different ways to interpret this image.  I will leave it up to your imagination.

As photographers we want to understand how he composes the subjects to generate questions of time.  I can’t tell you how many museum cards and gallery press releases I have read on artists who claim they are dealing with time.  99% of the time the work has almost nothing to do with time.  Remember, just because it is on your mind, does not mean its in the work.

During a critique in university I had a great teacher tell me, “Thats a great idea, but its not in the work.  You have to get the idea OUT of your head and INTO the work.  We all have great ideas, but a good artist knows how to release it into the world.”

At points in our lives we may feel older or younger than our numerical age.  Old and young are not static ideas.  We can actually be old and young at the same time.  This becomes evident with children who often exhibit behaviors that only fit their character much later in life.  We tend to look at age in a linear fashion, but this does not reflect its true nature.

Buddhism accepts that there is no beginning and no end.  We are just dots on a wheel that continue around forever.  How can we put huge philosophical ideas into our images?  Cartier-Bresson knew that time is a shifting game.  This picture reminds us that age exists in many forms.  Today we are alive, but at the same time we are dying.  Both happen simultaneously.  From the history of the church to the youth of the tree, down to the statues of the old women or the playfulness of the girls, time takes on many forms.  He catches a moment where time is the only subject in the entire piece and the extremes of human time are represented.  I imagine he saw the group of women, set up this shot, and waited.  Then the girl took a dive over the back of the bench and BANG!  This is where instinct comes into play.  He watched the scene, scans the background and waits for a shot.  Like we have seen in his other pictures, it does not always happen.  When it happens he fires and preserves a unique moment in time.  This is Street Photography.

Bicycle Wheel, 1951. Marcel Duchamp. (yes, this is one of those pieces that you say "My kid could do that.")


If you are not into contemporary art and are not sure who to blame, look up Marcel Duchamp.  He is a controversial character who is usually considered the Grandfather of Conceptual art.  Duchamp had two brothers and all of them were artists.  I won’t go into too much detail about him, but its worth including an image of one of his famous Ready-Mades to understand why Cartier-Bresson might have taken this image in Palermo, Sicily.

ITALY. Sicily. Palermo. 1971. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

When I read the discussions on forums about buffer speeds, low F stops and the quickness required for Street Photography I laugh.  Cartier-Bresson made his entire life’s work with manual film cameras and never used a f/1.4 lens.  I don’t have anything against technology.  I love my M9, the innovations of high ISO and improved glass are fantastic.  But I try not to forget that all the expensive gear in the world will never find a great picture for me.

Life and Death are traveling in opposite directions. What a poetic way to ask the questions. Sicily. Palermo. 1971. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Sometimes I envision Cartier-Bresson composing images like a chef walking through a market.  He walks around scouting the vendors for good items.  He does not know what he will use for tonight’s specials.  He pokes and sniffs his way, feeling and sensing his way through the baskets.  There may be a good fish here, a nice stack of veg there, and all of a sudden he has enough parts for a dish.  Cartier-Bresson probably walked around saying “Yes, yes, I like that…”  He could be looking at the light or a backdrop or a hearse.  In this case he must have seen the huge hearse parked across the street and seen the kids running around.  When the kid had Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, Cartier-Bresson knew he was in business.  All he had to to was frame up the car and wait for the kids.  As the kid flicked his wheel down the sidewalk, BANG! There was the shot.  One time, no re-do and its brilliant.

The joy of being alive, the air as we run through the streets, and the careless freedom of childhood is all set on the backdrop of death.  Rolling the wheel of Dharma past the lens, Cartier-Bresson finds a moment that touches on the greatest contradictions in life with the playful spirit of Duchamp and a Zen koan.  When you hear him talk about sniffing out a picture this is what he means.  The accumulated experience of twenty years of travel, countless rolls of film and his razor sharp eye converge on this scene.

Join me for Part III as we explore Imagination versus Reality.

Enjoy-Adam Marelli





  13 Responses to “Surrealist Manifesto Part II”

  1. Thanks for the insight into HCB and the photography of life. I will photgraph the streets with informed fervor.

    • Hey Elizabeth,

      Happy to peel back another layer of HCB. Studying his work reveals so much about “how we could be working.” Its a huge aspiration, but one worth pursuing.


  2. And once you have sniffed the scene you’ve got to wait for the main figure crosses the point of interest of the root 4 rectangle………buff, so much to manage with, I think……reserved for Masters.

    But only understanding Masterworks we can improve our “Humbleworks” and you are contributing to it.

    Thank you so much.


    • Hey Oscar,

      Remember that every master started as a lowly apprentice. They all worked hard until they found their footing. Art is one of those rare activities that is fairly democratic. Everyone can take a shot at it. Art does not care who you are, it only rewards hard work.

      You’d be surprised how many serious professionals started when they realized their humble works were better than they expected. I say give it a whirl.


  3. hey Adam, once again, great informative aRTICLE. As we look at photos, it’s becoming very clear that the great phtoographers didn’t simply walk around hoping to find something, but rather really worked a scene and FOUND all the components necessary for a great photo. As you pointed out, we can almost imagine him having found all the necessary supporting elements (light, diagonals, background, supporting subjects etc) and waiting around until just the right moment came along.

    I know in my own photography attempts, I had been goign around juyst kinda hoping that I could snap a photo that somehow ‘just worked’- not knowing how to set up the photos, and not really knowing anything beyond the very basic ‘rule of thirds’

    It’s really impoertant that we learn HOW to look at a scene- know what to look for, how to arrange the scene inframe, and to know when to snap the shutter once everythign is set and ready to go.

    I’m trying to compose on the diagonals more, but I don’t really know how to just yet (I’m having trouble figuring out the reciprocal diagonals when looking through the viewfinder)= I’m also looking at scenes a bit more critically- trying to find interesting juxtopositions (which seems to be much more difficult with nature photography-)

    Anyhow, looking forward to the next article- I for oen didn’;t realize just how much thought and preparation went into the great photos- these articles have really been an eye opener (I always suspected that there was ‘something’ that the masters knew, but just din’t know ‘what’ they knew and used- and I wasn’t finding the info anywhere until I ran across your website)

  4. Hey Naz,

    My apologies for the delayed response, just been busy with shooting.

    I think the opportunity exists for photographers to peer INTO the work of their predecessors. Once we understand that someone like HCB was not shooting random events it becomes clear how he worked. All of the layers will never be revealed, but he left many traces (which were informed by art history and his quirky sensibility).

    Once you start to see the games he played with his subjects your own photography will come alive. You can head out into the world with things to “look for.” Its kind of like an old story about Charles Darwin. After returning from one of his long voyages he concluded that a certain species must have been present off the coast of South America. But while he was there he did not see it. Then on the return he found it. Essentially he was able to see it once he knew what he was looking for. Photography is no different, at least if you want to play the HCB game.

    When it comes to using the armatures of the 1.5 and the Root 4, they come with practice and instruction. I cant really think of a way around the instruction part. It would be nice if someone could just Zap you with the understand, but I find that students need to be walked through the process. They start simply and build up more complex designs until the understand how to see designs in moving figures. It is very similar to the education a draftsman receives in a figure drawing class.

    But most important is the understanding that there is more the game of photography than appears on the surface.


  5. Hey Adam, thanks for replying-

    You said [[Once you start to see the games he played with his subjects your own photography will come alive. You can head out into the world with things to “look for.”]]

    Thius is exactly what I nbeed to learn to do- Until now, I’ve been simply going about hoping somethign would catch my eye, but never really knowing why something would infact catch my eye- learning HOW to look will go a very long way toward making photos (Yes, making as oppoised to snaopping) that have some real depth to them an d meaning- and showcase the skill of the pghotographer-

    I’m including a link to a photographer that shoots a LOT like Henri did- I think you’ll be pretty impressed with his unique photos- each photo is quicky, funny and very thought out, and he uses angles beutifully I think- and it looks to me that he also waits to get just the right shots before clicking hte shutter- like Henri used to-

    It seems to me there are two key secrets to creating photos that are skillful as compared to being just snapshots- one is learnign hte skill of composition, and the other is learnign HOW to see and to incorporate what you see into a correct composition. I realize there’s a lot of ‘supporting actors’ such as lighting, shadows, contrast, color, hue, saturation etc etc etc- but I think the two most important elements to succesful photos are what I mentioned- the supporting elements are just icing on the cake so to speak

  6. Fantastic write up, Adam. I’ve been voraciously reading through your entire blog the last few days, and it is some of the best reading around. Truly enlightening. In fact, I ordered the DVD set from your teacher, too. Well done.

    p.s. FWIW, I believe that HCB did use an 50/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar converted to M mount until the 50s, although I see no evidence of him shooting at such a wide aperture.

    • Hey GH,

      Very happy to hear that you are enjoying the articles. Myron’s DVD set will not disappoint you. Think of humans as bottles and that entire series will profoundly change the way you look and think about photographs.

      The secrets of design are only secrets because they are taught so infrequently. The nice thing is that once you “see them” they never go away.

      Let me know how you progress.


      ps. I am not too sure on all of the lenses he used in his lifetime. But before the Leica line was fully sorted out, there were a bunch of conversions that were popular. But
      I have not seen any of his images that look like they were shot at 1.5. From what I have heard he was at 2.8 and 3.5 as the widest for a long time. Maybe we take a trip to
      the Foundation in Paris to sort it out over a cappuccino and a croissant.

  7. Really sharp and interesting article, especially in giving compass to travel through the mind of Henri’s photographs.
    One “véritable” question I have to ask you is , now with all the educated knowledge about HCB’s works, and other like photographers ,and thoughts you’ve put into grasping the essence of what Street Photography can, is and/or ought to be (about), “What would in your opinion be worth being called Street Photography? Which markers would you use to assess how close you are to making a photograph that is deemed worth being called Street Photography and recognized as such?
    My question is primarily generated by “just because an image was taken on the street does not make it “Street Photography”. There’s so much said about this name tag and there’s so much put together into that bag that, searching as you do you might have come with a definition that rests on values and principles I’d be interested to know about.
    Personnally, I understand it literally as taking photographs in the streets where so much of life (taking many forms) is happening. Street being a school, worlds, a screen on which we project, and a mirror.

    I go back reading the sequels.

    • Hi Stephan,

      First I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. As you will learn with me, I often want to put as much thought into the response. So there is a delay as I wait for a good time to collect me thoughts.

      Street Photography as a term is generally misused. Like you pointed out, just because something is taken on the street does not mean it is street photography. If we take a step back and look at it from a broader perspective…Myron (Barnstone) once explained it to me like this. He said artists dont talk about making art. They make sculpture or paintings or woodcuts. “Art” is a term used by collectors and curators once a piece of work has proved itself worthwhile. But it is not something the art ever applies to their own production.

      Much in the same way, street photography is a term that was never used by the photographers who were considered its forefathers. In fact the origins of early street photography were documentary scenes taken in the early 1900′s by traveling types all over the world. Many of the images are locked up in archives, which are just being digitized. Which means that we are just starting to see its origins. Then guys like Kertesz and HCB did not really use the term either. It became a catchy way to define non-studio work that was not based on War Photography. Thus the misnomer of street photography found its public name.

      When I see “street photography” used to define a body of images, I must admit, it rarely works. Street photography is too broad, too vague to really define anything. If I say we are going to shoot some street photography, you will know what I mean, but it may translate into urban landscapes or environmental portraits ect. I recommend that people find an aspect of non-studio work that calls them and work to understand it specifically.


  8. I wanted to thank you for this fantastic read!!
    I definitely loved every little bit of it. I’ve got you saved as a favorite to
    check out new things you post…

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