This post is a first draft and will be gradually updated.
Henri Cartier-Bresson remains the photographer of the “decisive moment“. Apart from being influenced by the Cardinal de Retz decisive way of thinking, HCB also had 2 ohter pillars! After all, the tripod is regarded as the most stable structure…isn’t it? “Let’s no one ignorant of geometry enter her” was engraved at the door of Plato’s academy. As a former student of André Lhote, a renowned art teacher, HCB studied the classical rules of composition. By studying Cezanne’s and the other masters, HCB definitely internalized and developed some kind of 6th sense for geometry. As he said: “the golden ratio…it’s all in the eye…you know where it stands!!”. Well, to be honest, I do not have a compass pricked into my eye…and apart from dividing a frame into 3 equal parts, I do not really know where the golden ratio seats. The sad thing is that when asked about a way to learn geometry and composition, he smiled and answered: “Do you learn how to fuck?”….The eternal debate between inborn and acquired seems to be over!
Enough with composition, geometry and the things of life….The third pillar of HCB will linked us back to surrealism: “objective chance” . This theory was initially developed by André Breton. The father of surrealism regarded the world as populated and ultimately shaped by weak signals. HCB thought that you had to look at the world without willing. “You just have to be receptive…and then align the head, the eye and the heart”. “L’araignée d’amour” captured behind a door during a party in Mexico is a perfect example of such theory.
If Cartier-Bresson is “the eye of the century”, Brassaï was -as stated by his friend Henri Miller- ”the eye of Paris”. Will it be in the graffitis, strange faces engraved in the walls, or in the ethereal shots of the foggy nights, Brassai was really a surrealistic photographer. For him, the graffitis were part of the surreaslistic ”found objects”. Close to the spleen and “fallen angel” baudelerian theory, Brassai wanted to understand the ugly and dark sides of the world. Just like Diane Arbus, he photographed the weirdos in an attempt to understand life as a whole. Days, Nights, hidden messages, dreams, chance, mystery, aventure….All of these are part of Brassai pictures. Older than Cartier-Bresson, Brassai was actively involved in Surrealism journals and exhibits.
In 1925, while studying with Lhote, Cartier-Bresson regularly attended the Surrealists meeting at the Café de la Place Blanche. Cartier-Bresson was only 17 and belonged to a different generation than the founding members. With his friend the poet René Clevel, he sat at the end of the table and listened to Aragon and Breton. Feeling too young, he did not participate into the debates but adopted conceptions that would shape his entire life both as an artist but also as a human. Just like André Breton, the streets of the world were the stage of HCB.
It is assumed that Cartier-Bresson’s early work embeds a lot of surrealistic characteristics and symbols -ie: the mannequin-. Hard also not to think of the collages used by the surrealist painters when looking at “Les arènes de Valence”.
Henri Cartier-Bresson may not be regarded as a pure surrealist photographer but he definitely envisaged the word and photography in a surrealistic way.
I highly recommend the reading of the analysis of Adam Marelli about how Henri Cartier-Bresson’s approach was linked to the Surrealist Manifesto. www.adammarelliphoto.com
Houk Edwynn. Brassai: The eye of Paris. Houk Friedmman, 1993 : New York
Brassai: Paris la Nuit. Flammarion, 2001: Paris
Pierre Assouline. The eye of the century. Thames & Hudson, 2005
Anne Cartier Bresson et al. Revoir Henri Cartier-Bresson. Textuel, 2009: Paris