Jan 102012
 

Part V

[ HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON ]

The landscape of our dreams

will never been seen in our

waking life.  Its reality is confined

to a place between imagination

and fantasy.  How can we explore

a dream if we cannot bring our

cameras along for the trip?

 

SPAIN. Barcelona. Barrio Chino. 1933. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| FREUD’S SOFA |

An artist in the late 1800s would have spent the majority of their education studying master draftsmen.  Pablo Picasso, whose father was an art teacher, schooled his son in Classical works by Rubens, Velasquez, and Raphael.  Life was no different for René Magritte, Dali or any of the other Surrealists.  Artists usually spend the first half of their life coping with convention and the later half trying to break free from it.  When you understand the devices employed by artists in previous centuries it can leave you with a mixture of emotions.  At points we may feel inspired, defeated, or confused.  The visual language is a continuous development over at least 50,000 years.  It is profoundly older than any spoken work in existence and far more nuanced.  So how can we add anything to this vast world.

Picasso's famous distorted figures were not as a result of his inability to draw. He was a highly trained draftsman. Pablo PIcasso

The Surrealists decided to charter a trip to a new land for inspiration.  With the aid of Sigmund Freud, they used dreams and the irrational workings of the human mind to inform their work.  While they were never able to paint in their sleep, many artists and poets, kept a notebook on their bedside.  When they woke up, they would quickly jot down everything they were dreaming.  The hope was to eliminate the rational filters that we impose on waking life.

The "First Communion" was painted by Picasso as a 14 year old. Not bad for a kid who cant even grow a mustache. His sister and father served as the models. Pablo Picasso

| ORIGINALITY IS AN ILLUSION |

Henri Cartier-Bresson did not believe in originality.  If you talk to most contemporary artists, they too do not believe in the mythical creation of truly original ideas. HCB always said,”There are no new ideas, only new arrangements of ideas.”  We can think of his camera as a way to organize a scene which stimulates meaning through the arrangement of objects in space.  But sleeping next to the camera will not allow it to work inside our heads.  How can a dream scape be captured on film.

FRANCE. Marseille. 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| BE REASONABLE HENRI |

A self titled anarchist, there were many aspects which we might consider unreasonable about HCB.  His work, however, has an easy to flow thread which opens up to explain a lifelong attempt to illustrate the sleeping mind through scene from the real world.  A good place to enter a dream is the moment we fall asleep.

USA. Massachusetts. Boston. 1947. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

HCB photographed many sleeping subjects.  They are good subject because they hardly move, never complain, and their subtle twitches reveal an energy floating just below the surface of their still bodies.  HCB was a sensible man, with an artistic approach.  If he wanted to understand the realm of dreams he would start with the moment we leave our bodies and fall asleep.  His sleeping pictures remind us that his complete body of work is not simply as it appears.  Even though he was awake when the picture was taken, does not mean the image reflects the waking world.

Naples. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

With the children asleep, HCB was able to arrange a beautiful arabesque throughout the entire image. Naples. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Anyone who has children can attest to trance which comes from watching their children sleep.  A child sleeps with such intensity, grace and power that as adults we can’t help but admire their ability to sleep.  And if one child were not enough to catch your eye HCB found a pile of them, sleeping every which way.  They sleep and dream with intensity of an Antarctic glacier.  HCB’s portraits of sleep are an invitation to set aside the rational associations of our daily routine and drift through an alien landscape where the laws of physics and logic are turned upside down.

Naples. 1960. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| GOODBYE ISAAC NEWTON |

HCB was a magician.  He used slight of hand, or in his case slight of head, to undermine the laws of gravity.  A photograph is a two dimensional object, we are all aware of this.  Most of the time, we are trying to take three dimensional photographs.  If not, no one would bother obsessing over f1.4 lenses.  HCB takes this image from Naples in the opposite direction.  He uses its two dimensionality to flatten the field.  The railing in the foreground is compressed with the street in the background.  How can we tell he is doing this? Lets look at the anatomy of this image.

Notice the statue and the woman appear to be almost the same size, but in reality the woman would tower over the small sculpture. Naples. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

In the foreground there is a sculpture carved on the railing.  In the background we have a woman walking down the street.  From the angle at which HCB took the picture, the sculpture and the woman are the same size.  In reality the carved old man would hardly reach the woman’s waist, but HCB uses perspective to his advantage. A basic understanding of Classical perspective states that if there are two identical objects, the object further from the viewer will appear smaller.  In this case the woman looks smaller than the sculpture.  He reverses their scale.

The Rational Mind wants to see the woman walking flat on the earth. Naples. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

But the Surrealist Mind can see that the woman is slowly descending downwards along the handrail in the foreground. Naples. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Any good magician can pull of one trick, but HCB has another one up his sleeve in this scene.  Its subtle, but I bet HCB got a good laugh from his timing.  The woman appears to be walking down the handrail in the foreground.  Now the adults in the room all understand that she is walking on the earth just as we are supposed to.  But when HCB talks about “moving your head 2mm,” he is thinking of images like this.  By aligning the woman’s stride with the handrail in the foreground, he creates the illusion that she is descending down a railing when she is actually walking forward.  He looks for scenes which defy any common assumption.

Anatolia. Manisa. Celebration of the HCB 29th of October. Portrait of ATATURK. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| WHEN I GROW UP |

As HCB moves around the world, he plays games with his subjects.  Since we are not able to look at the contact sheets in order, its difficult for us to follow his train of thought.  But with enough research the humor of his work and his exploration of dreams becomes apparent.  When we dream objects tend to float and fly.  Gravity is more disrupted than a woman walking down a handrail.  Things flat out make no sense.  By capturing this scene from Turkey in black and white HCB inserts a floating head of Ataturk in a field of children.  His head floats like a flower in a sea of children.  HCB may have even tried to give this floating head feet, but they are a little off to the left for believability.  I never had the chance to sit with HCB, but I gather that he was a thoughtful person.  Part of the nature of a photographer who moves around the world means that you have multiple hours inside your own head.

HCB may have been reflecting on how heads of state were once children.  It seems like an obvious connection.  But aside from the significant content in the image its useful to understand how he used black and white film to unify the scene.  This picture would never work in color.  Painted in a black and white brush the girl in the foreground and Ataturk’s floating head exist together, but with just enough confusion that we want to search for the rest of his body, until we realize its just a photograph inside of HCB’s frame.

| STRIKE THAT REVERSE IT |

I read a tremendous amount of confused literature on the idea of lights or darks advancing in an image.  Some people argue whites advance while others say that in fact the black is advancing.  If you come across one of these articles give it a read, close the window and never think about it again.  They cause more harm than good.  HCB understood from his days at the André Lhote school that a stand alone black or isolated white will not do anything.  The theory of Simultaneous Contrast tells artists that the relationship of light to dark governs whether a shape advances or recedes.  To think about this simply, high contrast figures advance or “jump out” while low contrast figures receded or “sit back.”  Classical convention would advise an artist to put the high contrast values in the main subject and the lower contrast objects in the distance.  This suggestion allows an artist to enhance the illusion of the third dimension on a flat surface.  We discussed this idea in an earlier article on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting.

ITALY. Basilicate. Matera. 1971. Italian Prime minister COLOMBO, inaugurating statue of Alcide DE GASPERI. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

In Basilicata, HCB once again reverses all of the rules and creates a scene where the subject floats in space.  The main subject (the woman in the center) is the highest contrast figure, though she is four people deep in the composition.  HCB lands her on a black background to make her white face LEAP forward.  He adds to the illusion of anti gravity by obscuring her body with a lavish bouquet of flowers in the foreground.  Meanwhile all of the figures in the foreground are low contrast and immediately recede to the background, in spite of the fact that they are closer to the camera.  Have a look at the spot on the right side of the image, where there is a strong patch of white and black.  It LEAPS forward while the lower contrast flowers move backward.  Its almost like looking at a film negative where everything in HCB’s dream world is reversed.  Front to back and back to front, the anarchist in him is really starting to emerge.

FRANCE. Paris. The Palais Royal Gardens. 1959. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

The bands of gray sit in the back, while the sharp contrast of the black and white trees and earth leap forward. This is all punctuated by the main figure in on the left hand side. FRANCE. Paris. The Palais Royal Gardens. 1959. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Back in France, we can understand why his picture at the Palais Royal Garden is so appealing.  The photograph is a trick.  The tops of the trees, which are closest to us are low in contrast.  Their medium grays hang out in space while the dark tree trunks and undersides stand against a stark light gray ground.  The trunks advance while the tops recede.  To nail this effect, HCB adds two black figures on a a nearly white ground to remind his critical audience that he is not “lucky” as they often claimed.  He knew exactly what he was looking for and waited until it happened.  The effect is a startling reversal of the classical principles within the idiom of the Surrealist dream scape.  Only when all the rules have been reversed can HCB transform a royal garden into an alien terrain.

JAPAN. Hokkaido. Hakodate. 1965. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| BOY TOYS & DOLLS |

In order for HCB to make these powerful images, he needed to keep them simple.  His attempt to undermine logic would unravel with the addition of frivolous details.  He exercises discipline in his work and sometimes he even uses Discipline as a subject.  A well behaved person is striking.  Its why tourists harass the guards at Buckingham Palace everyday, because its strange to see such well behaved little boys in their fuzzy hats.  Japan is a country famous for its discipline.  It is bred into every aspect of Japanese life from the Zen Monk to the Kamikaze pilot.

All of the roles are reversed in the image. The humans look like illustrations and the advertisements look like real people. JAPAN. Hokkaido. Hakodate. 1965. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

While traveling through Hokkaido, HCB found a peculiar arrangement of figures.  In this scene, the boys in the foreground, quietly tending to work, look like figures from a cuckoo clock.  Their posture is mechanical, they look unreal.  They go about their business without uttering a word.  Looming over their shoulders are the animated, bare shouldered young girls of post war Japan.  Again HCB is reversing the order of life, but in a completely different way.  The boys, who are “real”, act like dolls, while the barbie doll advertisements in the background look like they lean over and whisper something in our ears.  Whats alive is dead and what is dead is alive.  Its a curious reversal as reality is subordinated by the realm of fantasy which advertising rests on.

United States. New York City. Manhattan. Museum of Modern Art. "The dance" by Henri MATISSE, French painter. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| STEPPING OUT OF A DREAM |

What great fantasy must any artist have than a painting coming to life?  Its a dream many of us have entertained.  What if, for only a few minutes we could touch the hands of a Michelangelo, lay in the fields of a Van Gogh, or sail away in a Gauguin?  A mixture of good fortune and perfect timing brought HCB closer to this dream than many of us will achieve.  At the museum of Modern Art, HCB got his wish.  But just as with any dream, sometimes we cannot control every detail.

The nuns are arrange so they appear to be dancing with the figures in the painting. United States. New York City. Manhattan. Museum of Modern Art. "The dance" by Henri MATISSE, French painter. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

When the figures stepped out of this Matisse, they turned into nuns.  They lost their poetic freedom, were instantly shamed of the nudity and walked into the frame wearing habits.  HCB was a life long admirer of Matisse and spent months photographing him at work.  Its reputed that HCB spent at least four months quietly sitting in the corner of Matisse’s studio before he shot a single frame.  Photography is a game of patience and a razor sharp eye because opportunities are come and go in the blink of an eye.

HCB was able to extend the circle of Matisse’s dancers and expand the meaning of his joyous dance circles.  HCB seems to be saying to us that once we leave the dream or the painting everything changes, so beware.  Whether its a dream or a nightmare, the camera compresses separate subjects into a single frame to create a new meaning.  HCB could be right.  There may not be any new ideas, only new arrangements of them.

SWITZERLAND. Region of Grisons. Village of Stampa. Swiss painter and sculptor, Alberto GIACOMETTI, at his home. 1961. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| HENRI’S POCKET KNIFE |

Pierre Assouline asked HCB why he collected pocket knives, his answer was, “Have you ever tried to peel an apple with a Leica?”

By the time HCB started to hit his professional stride he was living in Mexico.  Before he left Paris, he went with a friend to visit a woman who was reputed to be a fortune teller.  She told HCB about most of the major events of his life. She foretold the death of his sister, his marriage to Ratna Mohini and that he would travel to the other side of the world, get robbed and not care at all.  It was true.  HCB was scammed of 1,500 francs (all of his cash) when he arrived in Mexico, but he still had his Leica’s and his knife.  He did not miss the money.  Fortunately he was able to access a 1,200 franc IOU, so he would be alright.  But have no fear every Mexican apple he encountered would be pealed by his trusty pocket knife.

Cubist painter George Braque uses a fractured motif in his images, which slowly informed HCB.

When he was not taking the skin off of apples, HCB developed a cross bred style of image that was one part Surrealist and one part Cubist.  He was friendly with artists in both artistic movements.  Their conversations were part of his regular dialogue.  The elements which are most prominent in these images are the reversal of lights and darks, like we saw above and he introduces figures that appear from thin air.

If we look at the general construction of light and dark shapes, the Cubist influence makes itself wonderfully clear. SWITZERLAND. Region of Grisons. Village of Stampa. Swiss painter and sculptor, Alberto GIACOMETTI, at his home. 1961. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

In the picture of Alberto Giacometti, the setting is not immediately clear.  There are strong lines and shapes, but the sense of depth is cut to shreds.  The shapes of the lights and shadows dominate the forms of the buildings.  The scene, if we were to describe to someone over the phone would be of, “A man standing between two wooden houses.”  But this explanation hardly captures the visual elements of the scene.

When HCB started photography, his early successful images relied on a classical model.  We have either a light figure on a dark ground or a dark figure on a light ground.  The main subject is properly lit to add to the illusion of a three dimensional plane on a two dimensional surface.  A photographer must master the the tricks required to turn a flat sheet of paper into a window of reality.  But HCB did that successfully for decades and decided it was time to invert the rules.

He asked himself, “What would happen if the subject was not clear?   What if Giacometti was in shadow and the shapes around him were the main focus?”  He wanted to use his camera like a knife and cut up reality.  This fractured scene is a carefully constructed as if we were looking through a broken mirror.  The picture is not a reliable representation of reality.  It is everything we try to avoid most of the time.  But maybe HCB wanted to express a hidden psyche of his close friend Giacometti.  We might be looking at Giacometti’s or HCB’s dream, its not clear.  But what we do know is that HCB is taking us away from the ordinary expectations of an image through a disrupted vision strongly contrasting shapes and values.

Two young women HCB discovered at a party. Mexico City. 1934. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

| WOMEN ON THE BRAIN |

One night at a party in Mexico City HCB went upstairs and found two lesbians in bed.  He said it was a profoundly charged scene for him.  They were completely absorbed in each other that he snapped a photo.  Women were surely on the mind of the young HCB during his stay in Mexico.

MEXICO. State of Oaxaca. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

In the final image HCB gives us a scene that is almost completely black OR white.  The shapes read more like pinwheel cut outs, which are punctuated by the outline of a woman at the top and the unmistakable wisps of hair off to the right.  The silhouettes read like a draftsmen short hand sketch of quintessential feminine features.  HCB gives is just the smallest bit of information to key us in on the subject, but hardly gives us enough shape that we get a sense of where these floating features originate.  They are at once, in a dream.    The effect is dizzying.  We are never able to tell where the figure on the top comes from, is she a statue, is the shadow even caused by the shape of an actual woman?  It could be a shadow cast from a completely unrelated object.  But within the confines of our dreams, things do not always make sense.  Objects spring up from nowhere and disappear without a trace.

Capturing the elusive nature of a dream in a street photograph is a serious challenge.  Its obvious that HCB was a master of photography, but as you study his pictures in greater depth it becomes apparent that his grasp well beyond his peers.  He took street photography to the level of painters, who needed paint to invent scenes which only exist in dreams.  HCB, always up for a challenge must have said in his head, “ I bet you I can find a dream without a pencil or a brush.”

Later this week we will wrap up the Surrealist Manifesto with the final Part VI as we look at the “World Inside a Box.”

Thank you for reading, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Best-Adam Marelli

 

 

 

 

  17 Responses to “Surrealist Manifesto”

  1. Happy new year Adam !!

    Just a silly question, I don’t know if I have missed something but where is the Surrealist Manifesto part IV ??

    I don’t want to lose anything about your posts !! ;-)

  2. Happy New Year Oscar,

    In the original idea, there were 6 parts. I was going to do (2) parts at a time.
    But after writing Part I (which covered topics 1 & 2) I realized they should be done one at a time.

    Part II should really be called Part III and so on. I corrected the order on this one without fixing the earlier entries.

    You have not missed anything…enjoy this one and part VI will be coming soon. : )

    Best-Adam

    • Thanks, I understand everything now !

      As you can see we are hungry of your knowledge ;-)

      • Hey Oscar,
        It was my mistake. I really had not expected the articles to be so long.

        Figured it would be easier if they were cut up into smaller parts. This way they can be read/digested, then applied. Very happy to hear your excitement for the series.

        Best-Adam

  3. Hi Adam,
    Enjoyed the article as always. Your analysis is wonderful and thought provoking. You could request readers of your blog to send images inspired by your writing.

    Cheers,
    Mo Han

    • Hi Mo,

      Thats a great idea. If people want to submit pictures that are inspired by HCB’s Surrealist roots leave a comment below.

      Lets get at least 10 photographers together, one image each and I will make an entry highlighting the results. You guys can judge the outcome.

      Leave a note below if you like the idea.

      Best-Adam

      • Hi Adam,
        I very much like this idea. Maybe anyone interested can send a photo shot in the next week trying to use ideas from the ‘Manifesto’. I think the key would be to go and shoot now, not select a pic from our old archives.

        Cheers,
        Mo Han

        • I agree with you Mo, it should be a new picture. Take a few days and see what you can find. The purpose, I think, of a community is to push each other forward. The activity needs to be re-freshed all the time.

          Give it a go and keep me posted!

          Best-Adam

      • Very good idea !!!

  4. Thank you very much for this series, Adam!
    It is sooo refreshing to read your blog, full of thoughts on composition and actual making of pictures (or paintings), not like the ever growing myrriad of sites dedicated to camera specs and numbers (even tough I read and like some of those aswell).
    I feel I learn something every time I visit your site, and I’m planning to go back and read everything again just to be shure I get it..
    I enjoyed HCB pictures before but you have made me see so much more in his work.
    Again thank you. And please keep em comming, sir!!

    • Hey Kjetil,

      Thanks for the kind words buddy. Yeah I figure there are enough sites handling the reviews. The real challenge is what to do with all the cool gear one buys?

      HCB left a legacy. His images hold answers to many of our image making questions. Over the years I have found his work very inspirational, but never bothered to write down my ideas. I have to say I am shocked at the responses and very happy to feel the excitement from photographers like yourself.

      I’ll keep writing, you keep reading and like Mo suggested lets see some images from everyone.

      Best-Adam

  5. Hi Adam,

    Would be an interesting try out. Great idea.
    Thanks again for sharing your observations and thoughts.
    I like it a lot! All the best, Bas

  6. This is great stuff but my dilemma is how to integrate this sort of thing into your brain so you can see it in shots – I’ve tried to go out ‘street shooting’ but just getting properly exposed images and trying to sort through all the visual clutter is a bit nerve wracking. I was all excited about ‘channeling Bresson’ but couldn’t even think straight…If you have any suggestions (I am very new to photography so it may be inexperience) I’d appreciate them.

    Most painters would work up sketches and refine a composition at their leisure but Bresson had to catch it in the blink if an eye. That’s what’s amazing about his work.

    • Hey Debra,

      You have stumbled across a very interesting dilemma, in that inspiration will get you “out there” but it does not offer much in terms of guidance. My recommendation is to work with a teacher.

      I consistently see my students begin with all the right intentions, but without proper fundamentals in image making. Now I am not talking about exposure and focus and technical aspects of the camera. All of these items they know how to do. What they struggle with is how to See a scene. And you cant be taught to see a scene all at once. It is built up, one element at a time. If you are interested in studying this further feel free to contact me. I find that most, if not all photography classes, do not give the quality of training that is reserved for draftsmen. Much of the material that made HCBs work possible was adapted from painting and drawing.

      While it seems like HCBs work needed to be captured in a fraction of a second, the statement is a touch deceiving. You are right, he did need to press the shutter in a fraction of a second, but that was because he was waiting for a moment which he recognized. He waits and waits and looks and waits and then BANG! There is quite a decent amount of preparation that goes into those scenes.

      Well thats all for now, otherwise I will end up with another entry in the comments section.

      Drop me a line if you have more questions.

      Best-Adam

      • Yes he did seem like he chose and composed his scene then waited for a human to enter at just the right moment. In this digital age, people rarely have that kind of patience or attention span. The story him about spending a couple years in Matisse’s studio w/o taking a shot blows my mind. Then you have someone like Vivian Maier who worked in total isolation and never even developed much of her work.

        Have you considered offering mentoring services online? I know some commercial photographers which do this and it gives them a nice income supplement while enabling them to give quality time to sincerely interested students.

        We have 2 colleges in my area – Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) and Ohio State University – not sure if you’ve heard anything about either of those. I’ve taken a few design classes at CCAD and they’re not for the faint of heart.

        Thanks!

  7. Really good article.
    Had a ball reading it. The interpretations of Henri’s photographs you chose to digress on are sharp.
    As for the photographs, I was happy to see some new ones (for me) as well as some I have seen and love for their construction, and now, that I know/see better with your themed analysis of them.
    I have only one book of HCB, Europeans, but have seen many others on different publications, and I recently made possible for me to see the exhibition of some of his photographs on Mexico, presented along the “mexican” photographs of Paul Strand. What I tend to understand looking at both photographers is that they are more destinations than departing point for photographers, knowing in advance that what they are really talking about is the Journey for which you’ve got to sharpen your tools and skills to fully enjoy it. They are dreams to follow awake.

    Thank You for your work.
    Gone to the last part
    Cheers Adam

    • Hey Stephan,

      Glad to hear you are enjoying the articles. Its funny, when I meet people in person…they often say they loved the articles, but never leave a comment.

      I prefer if people say they enjoyed it. The echo back lets you know that someone is out there. So I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your feedback.

      There are so many other angles to HCB’s work than are presented in his books. With the exception of a few, the intro essays are usually blathering non sense, which were never written for photographers. Photographers would really benefit from understanding HCB’s relationship with Cubist, Surrealism (I just scratched the surface), psychoanalysis, and design. Gombrich is the only writer who even comes close to giving us a useful essay.

      The others are nice historical accounts, but I want to know what he is DOING, not a newspaper write up of what happened.

      Keep following the waking dreams.

      Best-Adam

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