PRINT October 1987


A CENTRAL PURPOSE behind the vast majority of photographs—particularly in such mass-distribution forms as advertising and newspaper photography—is to define a communal perception of reality. This process is both reassuring and coercive, with the photographs implicitly urging that we accept the version of reality they propose and therefore explicitly delineating the boundaries of what is “normal.” Photography as it is usually practiced is reassuring (and oppressive) in another way as well—it repeats and seems to certify unchanging verities of narrative, of the nature of the world, of the varieties of human character and incident.

It is from their unrelenting, sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt contradiction of this web of expectation and purpose that the early photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson—presented this fall at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in a significant exhibition curated by Peter Galassi—draw their force. This work shifts the familiar image of Cartier-Bresson as a great photojournalist, an image based on his work since 1936. (As Galassi points out in his informative catalogue essay for the MoMA exhibition, which concentrates on the years 1932–34, Cartier-Bresson made few photographs in 1935, a year he spent in the United States.) In the early pictures, Cartier-Bresson exploited the ease of operation of the handheld camera, responding quickly, with little premeditation, to the scenes in front of him. This radical shift in technique—which other photographers, including André Kertész, Brassaï, and Martin Munkacsi, were exploring at the same time—allowed him to break through formulas of composition and pictorial narrative. The best of his pictures from these years are so startling in the feeling of the rightness of the correspondences they reveal, while so apparently inevitable in their formal beauty, that they seem to offer physical evidence that through the camera the eye can be linked to the world with an uncanny immediacy, allowing profound recognitions to occur. Instead of reassuring the viewer, these photographs point to the existence of unfathomable mysteries beneath the placid surface of the everyday.

Born into a wealthy Parisian family (his father ran the family textile concern), well bred and educated, Cartier-Bresson had ready access to French intellectual and artistic circles. He took up oil painting at the age of 12, and at 19 entered the studio of André Lhote, a well-known teacher and follower of Cubism of the first years of the century. Cartier-Bresson’s studies with Lhote provided him with a thorough grounding in the period’s ideas on composition, especially the liberating formal innovations of the Cubists. In the artistic and social ferment of the late ’20s, though, he was especially drawn to the Surrealists: “I was marked, not by Surrealist painting, but by the conceptions of [André] Breton, [which] satisfied me a great deal: the role of spontaneous expression and of intuition and, above all, the attitude of revolt.”1 Although he became friends with a number of the Surrealists and attended the conclaves Breton would hold to propound his ideas, Cartier-Bresson appears to have been little more than a hanger-on in the Surrealist circle, according to Galassi; in the catalogue to “L’Amour Fou,” the important survey of Surrealist photography curated in 1985 by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston (at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), he is mentioned only in passing.

Cartier-Bresson sought release from the world of moneyed good taste in which he grew up not only through art but also through his pursuit of a Bohemian lifestyle. Like many other romantic and privileged youths, he also attempted to escape from the bourgeois through travel to suitably exotic destinations. Galassi links Cartier-Bresson’s journey to Cameroon in 1930, in particular, to the examples of Arthur Rimbaud and André Gide, both of whom made well-publicized voyages to Africa. On the return voyage from Cameroon Cartier-Bresson jumped ship in the Ivory Coast; he stayed there a year, supporting himself by hunting wild game at night, and returned to France only when he caught blackwater fever. As early as 1929 he had begun to take pictures, using a wooden view-camera; during his stay in Africa he bought a small roll-film camera and began to photograph more extensively. (When he later processed his film, however, he found all of the frames ruined by mold.)

In the years that followed, Cartier-Bresson continued to travel and to photograph extensively, especially in Spain, Italy, Mexico, and the Mediterranean regions of France. (It was on a trip to Marseille in 1932 that he bought his first Leica.) In his travels he passionately sought out the exotic, the taboo, the outcasts, people who were economically on—or beyond—the margins of society. There’s an element of slumming about Cartier-Bresson’s work in these years, but he makes no attempt to disguise his fascination with such subjects by presenting his pictures as supposedly neutral sociological or anthropological studies; instead, they are speculative, dramatic statements.

Galassi demonstrates the central role that Surrealist themes and techniques play in Cartier-Bresson’s work from this period. Instead of constructing his images in the studio, though, as most of the photographers associated with Surrealism did, he discovered his subjects in the street, thus gaining an uncanny authority for his pictures. Included in the exhibition are a sprinkling of photographs that he took of friends and companions—the writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, the painter Léonor Fini, and others. In one such image, of Fini with her face distorted through the mesh of a stocking, he rehearsed the investigation of social masks and costumes that forms the main theme of his photographs from this period and that he would soon photograph in the street. Other pictures refer directly to well-known Surrealist images. For example, a photograph of a man holding a shrouded figure, presumably a woman, suggests René Magritte’s enshrouded kissing couple in Les Amants (The Lovers, 1928); this and other photographs of objects or people hidden beneath blankets or cloth also recall Man Ray’s seminal Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse, 1920.

When Cartier-Bresson pursued Surrealist themes explicitly, he gave them his own twist through his masterly use of photography. For example, a photograph of a horsehide outside a slaughterhouse may have been directly inspired by a similar photograph by Eli Lotar, published in 1929 in the Surrealist journal Documents (and reproduced in the catalogue to “L’Amour Fou”). But Cartier-Bresson has photographed the skin in a raking light, from a slightly raised angle; as a result it floats, glistening seductively, in the ambiguous space of the picture. Even in this atypical image Cartier-Bresson’s central concerns from this period are apparent. Over and over he photographs what might be seen as images of the self, or parallel selves, or false selves—the masks, the poses, that people construct for themselves. In this light the limp horsehide, with the shape of the flayed horse still apparent in its crumpled folds, can be seen as a bloody costume for the missing carcass of the horse, much as the human body can be seen as a costume for the spirit; it recalls the sagging human skin, abandoned by the departed soul, that Saint Bartholomew holds in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

Cartier-Bresson has a particularly sharp eye for the props and costumes of social class. Men in these pictures are often dressed up in uniforms of some kind, whether the crisply declamatory uniforms of policemen, the bowler hats and dark suits of bourgeois gentlemen, or the rumpled cloth caps of workers. (The sheer diversity of hats here, each succinctly summarizing the social position of its wearer, is amazing.) But Cartier-Bresson is not making a catalogue of social types, the way August Sander did. Instead, he is usually deploying his characters in a romantic, absurdest form of social theater. Like Sergei Eisenstein, Cartier-Bresson is a master of photographic caricature, using the camera and unposed street incidents to give added force to his biting, sardonic lampoons. In some pictures he punctures the pretensions to grandiosity and to immortality of authority figures by contrasting the pomposity of their uniforms with the banality of their expressions. In other pictures he photographs people next to advertising posters or graffiti that in some way echo their expressions. In doing so he throws into relief the question of personal identity and authenticity, implicitly asking what the relationship is between the individual and the image that parallels the individual. He peels away successive layers of the social construction of identity—representation, costume, pose, gesture.

In his recognition of the levels of significance that posters and graffiti can carry, Cartier-Bresson was following a path—pioneered by Eugène Atget—that other photographers, notably Brassaï and Kertész, were exploring at roughly the same time. Both Atget and Brassai photographed prostitutes, too, as Cartier-Bresson did most strikingly in Mexico. But he brought a vicious wit and a Surrealist sense of the mysterious to his photographs, giving them a particular pungency. Brassaï’s pictures of Parisian prostitutes depict the Parisian demimonde in a relatively straightforward, reportorial manner, but the women in Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of prostitutes are transformed into performers in an intensely erotic, disruptive drama. In several pictures he shows them, their faces masked by thick, cartoonish makeup, confronting the camera with piercing stares as they squeeze forward through the little display windows that were prescribed for them by law. In other pictures women are given more lyrical roles. In one, a peasant woman is shown under a boxlike structure of some sort, slumped in sleep, that privileged state in which people can escape the bonds of consciousness, and to which the Surrealists attached such importance; her face is bathed in light, giving her an almost beatific expression. Children, too, are seen in traditionally romantic terms in these pictures: they appear as freer, more expressive, more “natural” than adults. But they are never depicted as innocent or sweet, as a sentimental adult might wish to see them; instead, Cartier-Bresson presents them as essentially amoral. In a pair of photographs from 1933 he photographed a mob of poorly clothed boys playing in the empty shell of a partially destroyed building in Seville. In one picture they gleefully chase each other over the piles of rubble even one boy on crutches, who hobbles along, grinning; in the other the boys have stopped to stare at the camera, as if challenging its intrusion into their games. In neither image do they show any concern about, or even awareness of, the social and historical circumstances of their situation—how they came to be poor, say, or why the building was gutted. (Ironically, these images are often thought to show the destruction caused by the Spanish Civil War, but in fact they were made three years before the war began.) Instead, unconcerned with the calculations of right and wrong that form the basis of conventional adult morality, the boys seem to occupy a world apart, a timeless world. Perhaps because he was an outsider to the scenes he photographed, Cartier-Bresson was free to cast the people in his scenes in particularly subjective ways, to work outside the constraints of familiarity or even of plausibility, and to indulge his fantasies, whether conscious or unconscious.

He also used the formal rhetoric of photography to heighten the emotional impact of his images. His famous concept of the “decisive moment” refers, as he wrote in 1952, to “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second,” not only of “the significance of an event” but also of “a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”2 Occasionally his photographs can become intricate compositions of essentially lifeless forms. In a 1933 photograph of the delicate patterns formed by the wrought-iron furniture of a café, a figure bending over in the background is used simply as another element in the design. But more often he applies his formal virtuosity to the central issues in his work, as he did in a backlit scene of children playing among anchors and ropes on a white beach. Seen in silhouette, the children become calligraphic, their quick forms echoing and contrasting with the heavy anchors dug into the white sand.

What finally lies behind the layers of masks Cartier-Bresson so diligently peels away? We can never see. The people in his photographs remain ciphers, their mysteries hidden from our gaze. Cartier-Bresson does not force a false intimacy on them, or attempt to strip them of their masks to make them bare their souls for the camera. By the same token, he doesn’t pretend that he has in fact somehow captured the essence of the people he photographs; if anything, he denies that it would be possible to do so. He regards them as if from a great distance, as if separated from them by a series of impenetrable boundaries—of class, of age, of nationality, of sex; finally and most basically, the boundary between one person and another. Although he borrows their images for his photographs, he implicitly acknowledges that they retain a separate existence beyond whatever images are imposed on them—or that they impose on themselves.

The act of finding and photographing these scenes gives the pictures the implicit quality of evidence that all photographs, but especially street photographs, convey. In trying to understand any photograph it’s important to consider the terms on which it was made—what was happening when the shutter was pressed, just what the photographer’s role was. This is why the stock question asked of photographs—how was it done?—matters. We need to understand the terms on which it was made in order to know whether to treat it as the knowing invention of the photographer or the recording of an event in the world. Usually in Cartier-Bresson’s work we are given a variety of clues to indicate that the photograph could never have been faked. But in some cases this question of the origin of the image is complicated, the boundaries between recording and invention becoming blurred. In any event, these are photographs about what cannot be shown in photographs—about the impossibility of capturing someone’s personality, in its full complexity and depth, in the camera’s analytic eye.

Many of Cartier-Bresson’s best-known pictures are from the years covered by this show, and these continue to be included in the surveys and monographs of his work that have appeared with regularity. But the prime thrust of his work since then has changed, as has the public perception of him. In the years between 1936 and World War II he turned increasingly to social reportage. In the same period he worked on two propaganda films, first with Jean Renoir and then for Frontier Films, and became a staff photographer for Ce Soir, the communist daily edited by Louis Aragon. Among the other photographers with Cartier-Bresson on Ce Soir were Robert Capa and David Seymour (“Chim”); after the war these three were among the founding members of the photojournalists’ cooperative agency Magnum.

In the years since, Cartier-Bresson has continued to travel widely. Both through his own work and through Magnum he has exercised an enormous influence on photojournalism, defining a style of photography that makes use of the medium’s potential for formal meaning while taking an ethical stance in relation to the world. Instead of concentrating on the usual photographs of great men and women performing events sanctioned as historically important, Cartier-Bresson and other photojournalists working in a similar manner have depicted the everyday life of other societies, finding in it a source of profound historical and cultural significance. Some of these later pictures have the same quality of surprise, the same sense of the revelation of precisely delineated enigmas, that his early work does. Over the years he has undoubtedly made many other such photographs. His work has always blended two seemingly contradictory impulses—one outward-looking and social, the other focusing on inner questioning and continuous testing of the nebulous boundary between self and the world. Such an apparent split is in fact inherent in being alive, an individual and part of a society.

While there is no denying the influence of Cartier-Bresson’s later work, both for its ethical stance and its fresh approach to questions of photoreportage, it is difficult to assess it fully. Many of his most widely reproduced pictures from the period since 1936 are anecdotal, depicting heartwarming scenes that seem to accept and reinforce social stereotypes rather than challenging them. What has tended to be shown is his more strictly “photojoumalistic” work—often selected by editors who try to anticipate and palliate the tastes of a mass audience. As a result it includes some of his tamest, most sentimental images. This exemplifies photojournalism’s dilemma. No matter how skillful a photographer may be at discovering telling moments—decisive moments—about events in the world, the pictures remain subject to the taste of editors who are themselves attempting to anticipate the unspoken desires of an anonymous, formless, faceless audience. In doing so they tend to rely on the safety of the familiar, the already known and understood, the predigested. This process occurs in any mass medium. The larger the audience, it seems, the less one is allowed to say. But every photograph is really a question about the nature of the world—or, more precisely, about the relationship between fact and desire: how the world is, and how we would like it to be. The most important thing is to recognize this question and to accept the possibility it offers for discovery, both formal and psychological. Fear of this possibility is the real enemy of both photojournalism and art.

Charles Hagen is an editor of Artforum and contributes to it regularly.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work” can be seen at the Museum of Modem Art, New York, until November 29. It travels to the Detroit Institute of Arts, December 15–February 7, 1988; the Art Institute of Chicago, February 27–April 16; the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, May 10–June 26; the Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, Mass., September 25–November 28; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 17–February 26, 1989; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, March 31–May 28.


1. From an interview with Cartier-Bresson by Gilles Mora, quoted in Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, New York: the Museum of Modem Art, 1987, p. 12. Much of the biographical information in this article comes from Galassi's informative essay in this catalogue.
2. Henn Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. n.p.