[ 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?
| 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.
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.
| 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.
| 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.
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.
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.
| 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.
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.
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.
| 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.
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.
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.
| 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.
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.
| 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.
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.
| 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.
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.
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.
| 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.
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.