[ HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON ]
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.
| WHERE WERE WE ? |
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.
| CONTRADICTION |
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.”
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
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.
| BECOME THE TARGET |
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.
| RAISING HELL |
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.
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.
| GENERATIONS APART |
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.
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.
| MARCEL’S BICYCLE WHEEL |
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.
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.
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.