Dec 252011


The world we see in advertisements

is hardly a reflection of reality. The

billboards of our cities are as doctored

as Raphael’s School of Athens.  Set

against the backdrop of a “perfect

world” is an chance for a photographer

to play with the contradictions of

imagination versus reality.


FRANCE. Paris. Subway. 1976. Henri Cartier-Bresson


Advertisements have a simple agenda, they want to sell us something.  Do you want a better car, cleaner skin, or a flashier life?  It does not matter.  The world of advertising and billboards is ready to sell you everything you need and a bunch of things you don’t need.  Underneath the skin of an ad is the promise of values.  The trick or scam, depending on your perspective, of the advertiser is to assure you an improvement the things you value in life, security, happiness, love, beauty, and the list goes on.

While the ads are busy at work, the universe enjoys playing another game on the Ad Men (or Women).  The flow of people shuffling to and from work offer up fascinating contradictions as they pass in front of ads on the street.  From homeless people to the factory worker, people from all walks of life pass by advertisements.  The game Cartier-Bresson plays and which you can play too, is finding a contrast of figures and themes to capture a fleeting moment more powerful than either individual element on its own.


The development of Cartier-Bresson’s work follows a certain logic which is consistent with most great artists.  His techniques start out very simple.  Then over time he increases the complexity and appears to go through hyper growth spurts.  These massive steps forward, sling shot him past his contemporaries and are very hard to explain.  But before we get too caught up trying to source the creative moment that accounted for his quantum leaps forward, lets look at his humble beginnings.

Just like a one line joke, Cartier-Bresson found an image inside of the Paris Metro.  A man is asleep on a bench.  Sleeping subjects are popular among painters and photographers for a few reasons.  They are clearly defined actions and they give you all the time in the world to refine the compositions because your subject is not moving.  In this image Cartier-Bresson is showing us how the imaginary world of advertising (which he detested, notice how none of his images are ever allowed for advertising purposes) plays against the realities of street life.  The cheerful couple, who looks like the just finished a tennis match, swings towels around their necks.  They have the lying smile of people who play tennis and defy the laws of sweat.  The cheery sparkle of lipstick and manicured hair are nothing but a farce.  In front of their delusional world is a regular man.  Maybe he is non destitute.  He could just be passing through.  But for the moment the metro bench is his bed.

Does it matter that this picture was taken in Paris?  Yes it does.  A huge contrast that exists between certain countries are the amount of activities that occur in public space.  New York, Paris, Rome, London, Tokyo etc are all cities where much of life happens behind closed doors.  In comparison to a city like Varanasi India, where people bathe, sleep and eat on the streets, life in modern cities is fairly closed off.  It is precisely this split between public and private activities that gives this picture its strength.  On its own, the photo of a sleeping man or of the advertisement are not strong enough.  When combined they play off of each other and read as a critique on the troubles that rumble beneath the surfaces of Parisian life.

Yucatan. Merida. 1963. Henri Cartier-Bresson


Taking pictures of homeless people below advertisements is a bit of a cheap shot.  Its the type of picture you can take one time, understand all the mechanisms and move on.  Let the people sleep in peace.  As Cartier-Bresson moved through other cities he found more elegant contradictions.

When we want to call attention to part of our photographs it helps if all of the elements contain a certain strength.  When Cartier-Bresson saw the painting of Atlas on the sidewalk in Mexico, all he needed to do was wait for the right contrasting figure.  He needed someone who would stand in opposition to the muscular man sentenced to hold the heavens on his shoulders for eternity.  He also would have needed to find a light figure to play against the darker ground of the wall.

BANG! An old man with a cane walks by and Cartier-Bresson found his match.  Once the elements in the scene are set, he has a photograph.  With the simple stride of the old man we are left to consider:

  • Is youthful hubris always outdone by elder grace?
  • Is wisdom stronger than muscle?
  • Are three free legs better than two which are always working?
  • Do the lessons of the classical world do us more harm than good?
  • Or is Cartier-Bresson looking at this scene as a passage of time?
  • Could the old man have liberated himself from his early struggles only to find an easier way of life?

The success of this image lies in its ability to suggest a number of questions and leave all of the answers to us, the viewers.  (Note once again, we see HCB setting his figures on a dominant diagonal.  Even in his surrealist games he never gives up the formal strength of his images.)

SOVIET UNION. Uzbekistan. Samarkand. 1972. Henri Cartier-Bresson.


Cartier-Bresson came from a family who ran thread factories.  The business of work was of no interest to him.  But the subject of other people working appear in his travels.  Communist countries always hold their workers in high esteem (at least publicly).  Instead of finding an image of pure contradiction, we have a photograph that brings a painting to life.  Its looks as if this man, trudging up the stairs, could have walked out of this worker’s propaganda painting.

Cartier-Bresson surely had opportunities to repeat his photographs and their themes endlessly.  He chose to push the images forward and find new arrangements in the world.  Unlike what we saw with the man sleeping in the Metro or Atlas and the Old Man, here we are confronted with a scene of work versus the reality of work.  The brush strokes come to life as we are left to consider, is working really as heroic is it is promised by the Party?  Or is the worker wasting away against the backdrop of a painting that never tires and never sleeps?  Its all up for discussion.

MEXICO. Los Remedios near Mexico City. 1963. Henri Cartier-Bresson


Before things get too serious, we must remember that Cartier-Bresson has a wonderful sense of humor.  In Mexico City he finds a portrait of a musician unpacking his violin.  From a formal perspective its a “good” picture.  The light figure is played against the darken doorway behind him.  We have a clear view of the mans face, hands and instrument.  Everything appears to be in order until we look to the left.

There is an oversized Corona bottle balancing on a child’s head?! As we have discussed in earlier articles, when the edges of two forms, touch without overlapping its becomes difficult to tell which object is in front and which one is behind.  Here it looks as if that bottle is just perched on the boys head.  Cartier-Bresson’s surrealist sense of impossible acts is on display.  There is a lovely absurdity in the arrangement.  A bottle of that size (if it were real) could never be supported by a little kid.  But through the lens of Cartier-Bresson’s camera the configuration works.  There are certain scenes that actually work better on film than they do in person.  By freezing this frame at the exact point of alignment Cartier-Bresson set this moment in time forever.

JAPAN. Tokyo. Hibiya district. 1965. Henri Cartier-Bresson


In what I consider to be one of Cartier-Bresson’s finest commentaries on young lovers, we are presented with a surrealist scene of ideal love versus the awkwardness of a first kiss.  Before many of his head into the world of dating, we spend hours day dreaming about our romantic “firsts.”  The first kiss, first love or first night with someone always seems to hold mountains of potential.  But the realities of our “firsts” are usually clumsy moments where we would have been better prepared if we brought a hard hat instead of flowers.  Love, in all of its mistaken forms, can be rather anti-climactic.

It actually seems difficult to get a real sense of the the visual elements of romance because the two major sources are so horribly distorted.  Somewhere between Hollywood and the Adult Film industry lies love, romance and sex as it actually happens.  The two figures in this scene look as if they have never seen either.  Still physically disconnected, they also to not share the same mental space.  They look as if they should be together, but are headed in opposite directions.

Sinister Diagonal arranges the young man and the woman.

Again this could be a short moment that Cartier-Bresson caught with the camera that defied the actual scene.  We do not know if they are actually together or two strangers caught in the same frame.  The success of this image can be measured on a number of layers.  First, we have two scenes, each of a couple, engaged in opposite activities. The parallel number of figures sets a visual harmony to the scene.  We also notice that the figures in the foreground are not together simply because the figures in the background are so entwined.

The Baroque diagonal sets up the young woman and the man.

Second, there are no distracting elements in the image.  One thing that Cartier-Bresson does over and over again, is he positions himself to avoid background elements that are unimportant.  There is no Photoshop at work here, only fancy footwork.  If a scene is going to have some power we want it as concentrated as possible.  Every unnecessary element that creeps into the frame detracts from the visual power of the scene.

The Barque diagonal also sets up the gazing direction of the two figures.

Third, we are presented with the clearest contrast of an ideal world versus the real world.  If there is one hypothetical scene that is abused by paintings, advertising and cinema it is the scene with two lovers.  With a click for the shutter Cartier-Bresson captures the contrast of the two worlds, leaving us to question or own experiences.

While the sinister diagonal establishes a 90 degree relationship between the young man and the woman in the poster. Even when he is playing conceptual games Cartier-Bresson always uses formal devices to strengthen and arrange his subjects.

And lastly the formal arrangement of the scene is outstanding.  He places the young girl (a light figure) on the dark ground of the woman’s hair.  While the young man (dark figure) is placed on the lighter skin of the woman’s face.  Both figures are arranged on dominant vertical and horizontal positions.  And the figures either look in the same direction (man in the poster and the young woman) or in a 90 degree relationship to one another, as seen in the young man and the woman in the poster.


As photographers we only require momentary alignments of figures in space.  Within a fraction of a second the meaning of a scene can present itself.  We must be prepared to capture it.  But in order to do this, it helps to understand what games are operating under the surface.  Because most people walk through the streets and never see anything like the images above.  Surely Cartier-Bresson was not alone in these cities.  He was surrounded by people.  But he was the only one with an eye for the surrealist moments of contradiction.  Like Andy Warhol reminded us, “Great pictures are happening all the time, we are just missing it.”


As many of us sit down to Christmas meals and enjoy the lead up to New Years, maybe we will discover a unique moment that everyone else at the tables is missing.  I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone for a fantastic 2011.  It been a pleasure having you all visit the site, comment on the articles, and write me with your questions and concerns.  I want to wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.

Later today, we are flying to Rome and Matera Italy to explore the towns where my grandparents grew up.  It should be a fun adventure.  When I get back we will resume out Surrealist series and I will be announcing the upcoming workshops for the Spring of 2012.  Can’t wait to see you all there.


Wishing you all the best!

Adam Marelli

  11 Responses to “Surrealist Manifesto: Part III”

  1. Adam,
    I haven’t read the post yet. I don’t know how many times I have checked your blog for the last two weeks. Merry Christmas, and thanks for the Christmas present, this post that is.


    • Hey Mo Han,

      Hope you enjoy the article. The last two weeks were super busy so the postings have been less frequent than I prefer. But will start back up in the New Year.

      Wishing you the best. Adam

      • Hi Adam,
        I did enjoy the article. You make street/surreal photography appear so easy by the analysis.

        1. Understand surrealism and choose the theme e.g. opposition
        2. Look for something/somewhere that looks out of place (the more it is out of place for people in that particular city, the better)
        3. Work out the shot, keep camera ready, keep adjusting exposure for changing weather
        4. Wait until that someone appears as planned
        5. Shoot image when that happens.
        6. Maybe wait more and improvise.

        Appears too good. If only we can see that unusual connection! Makes me want to shoot more. Thanks for the series.

        • Hey Mo Han,

          You are on the right track. Street photography is a tough game, but it’s even harder if no one has ever explained the rules. I once read a quote from a NYC taxi driver who said the street lights are like rough suggestions. It’s true, but they matter for sure.

          Once we can see the games that HCB was up to the world really opens up for us. It infuses you with a new sense of clarity and purpose when you pick up the camera.

          As HCB said you have to milk the cow a lot to make a little cheese. but at least we will end up with cheese and not just spilled milk.

          Enjoy your adventures.

          More on Surrealism after the new year. Until now I am off to wander the streets of Matera Italy.

          Ciao ciao.

  2. precious article! accurate and appassionate analisis of great shots!
    Your blog is a source of street photography philosophy and composition rules . Thank u Adam
    Best wishes From Rome!

    • Ciao Matteo,

      It’s really fun sharing the excitement for street work with you all. Cartier Bresson left us so many useful hints and tricks to explore and apply to our own work. Too bad there are hardly any books that explain what he was “up to.”

      Just slept about 10 hours on my first night in Rome. Can’t wait to hit the streets.


  3. Everytime I look at your articles about HCB, my passion about photography and art is kept alive.
    Thank you Adam!

    Antony C

  4. Nicely written. Love the clarity of your articles.

    Nowadays this type of picture weighs a lot in the practice. And since the ads have become even more attractive, they in turn became powerful magnets for photographers, same with grafittis.
    Composing with them boosts your image production, but distracts too much from grasping more complex layers of life.


    • Hey Stephan,

      Yes as the advertising industry transitioned from hand painted signs to fluorescent colors, neon lights and back light signs the scenes became all about the add. They are an entire world placed in the middle of the photographers frame. Almost as a rule of thumb I try to exclude them.

      We might agree that advertising absolutely ruined entire sections of cities by artificial introducing commercial agenda, covering actual architecture, and creating a sense of global uniformity that is just plain boring. Time Square is one of the worst examples.

      In the words of American writer Fran Leibowitz,”I hope tourists like Time Square, because it was built for them. New Yorkers hate it.”


  5. Hi Adam,

    thanks for this great article! I think its one of the best writings about Bresson’s work on the internet. It goes way beyond the composition and golden ratio things you can find a lot. They are important too there is no doubt, but they are only the basis for the extrodinary work and messages of Bresson. I often think his work is compareable with the music of Bach. Because Bach used strict forms too and had been so incredibly creative within this forms.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Max,

      Very pleased you enjoyed the article. I’d love to hear more about the parallel between Cartier-Bresson and Bach.

      Ever think about writing an article yourself about it?


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