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Subject: AEJ 96 CookmanC VC The social realism of Henri Cartier-Bresson
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 22 Dec 1996 11:09:08 EST

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Compelled to Witness:
The Social Realism of Henri Cartier-Bresson
By Claude Cookman
Assistant Professor
School of Journalism
Ernie Pyle Hall, 200
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405
(812) 855-1717
[log in to unmask]
A little more than a week from now on August twenty-second, Henri
Cartier-Bresson will turn 88. If the past is any indication, he will celebrate
his birthday sitting on a camp stool sketching the mountains and valleys of the
Luberon region of Provence and trying fiercely to ignore a photographic legacy
that refuses to be disowned.
Cartier-Bresson's contribution to modern photography, and by extension to
twentieth-century vision, is without dispute. Among twentieth-century
photographers, he ranks as one of the best known and most influential.
Appreciated by lay audiences for his portrayal of the human condition, by the
art world for his consummate formalism, by historians for his advancement of the
photographic medium, and by photographers for his incomparable personal style,
he is a giant in modern photography.
In the early 1930s Cartier-Bresson created a new aesthetic in photography which
would later be encapsulated in the term *the decisive moment.: It comprised two
elements: First, the photograph must contain significant content. Most often, in
his pictures, it has been the human condition. Second, this content must be
arranged in a rigorous composition. Form, line, texture, tonality, contrast, and
geometric proportions carry an importance equal to, but also inextricable from,
the content. For Cartier-Bresson, decisive-moment photography is *the
simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an
event as well as of a precise organization of forms.:2 (Cartier-Bresson, 1952,
During the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson created this mode of photographic expression
and elevated it to a level unmatched by countless would-be imitators. His
achievement coincided with his discovery of the Leica, a 35mm hand-to-eye camera
that was first marketed in the late 1920s. With it, he demonstrated to the world
the potential of the 35mm camera to make pictures remarkable for their
revelatory content and formal excellence. He made hundreds of images so palpable
that they pull the viewer into their space; images so visually rich that the
viewer can look at them again and again, finding fresh rewards each time; images
that many critics have called magical, evocative, marvelous.
Most critics and historians agree on his stature. The disagreement concerns what
Cartier-Bresson was doing when he took his pictures. What were his intentions?
How can his enterprise be characterized? How can his production best be
Increasingly, since the late 1960s, critics and writers in the art world have
tried to position his work as art instead of photojournalism. Through argument
and implication they have concluded that he intended to create art, not to tell
photographic stories. Last August, for example, Michael Kimmelman, (1995, H1)
art critic for The New York Times, was able to write a fifty-inch story about
Cartier-Bresson without any reference to photojournalism or the magazine picture
story. Kimmelman began by proclaiming Cartier-Bresson *France's pre-eminent
artist,: but he made no mention of his reportages.
Cartier-Bresson has made photographic art. His pictures spring from a finely
developed visual sensibility. They have the power to evoke an aesthetic response
in viewers. What is in danger of being overlooked, however, is that he made this
art while producing photojournalism. The art world notwithstanding, the two
modes of photography are not necessarily exclusive.
What I wish to do in this paper is to resituate his work in its historical
contextPthe post-war world of magazine photojournalism. I will argue that
despite his claims to being a surrealist, he worked on some occasions as a
social realist. That is, that he used his camera to expose the contradictions of
class and race with the hope that the resulting photographs might improve social
conditions. Photographs made during the depression and a 1961 picture story on
the American civil rights movement constitute the primary photographic evidence
of my thesis. Quotations by Cartier-Bresson and his little-known involvement in
European politics of the extreme left during the 1930s will buttress the visual
My position contradicts those in the art world and the art market who attempt to
minimize or deny Cartier-Bresson's photojournalism. It is based on sources,
never before available for publication. With great generosity, Cartier-Bresson
gave me access to his contact sheets, caption materials, correspondence and
other primary resources at the Paris bureau of Magnum Photos, his agency. I have
synthesized those materials with his writings and interviews, his picture
stories as published in magazines and books, numerous conversations with him,
and more than 40 interviews with the editors and art directors who gave him
assignments, and the photographers who were his colleagues.
The attempt to claim Cartier-Bresson for art, at the expense of photojournalism,
dates back almost 50 years. Since Lincoln Kirstein's essay that accompanied
Cartier-Bresson's one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in
1947, many writers have used his coverage of the coronation of King George VI in
1937 to minimize his photojournalism. Because he photographed the crowd instead
of the pageantry and the new British sovereign, so the argument goes, he was not
a typical photojournalist.
The basis for most art critic's position is modernism's fierce allegiance to
purity. For the modernist, art springing from impure roots is a contradiction,
if not an impossibility. Ingrid Sischy, the arts editor and writer, has made
clear the lowly status of photojournalism in the hierarchy of modernist values:
That limiting, fragmenting system which divides people who use the medium into
categoriesPfine-art photographers or commercial photographers or news
photographersPmay have had many exceptions and challenges over the years, but it
is still firmly in place. No matter that, for instance, a photographer's imagery
is highly inventive, and stands on its own: if it was originally produced on
assignment, he or she is still pigeonholed as *less: than an artist, and has a
harder time being taken seriously than someone whose pictures are first seen in
an art gallery. (Sischy, 89).
Thus, in 1955, the art critic James Thrall Soby marvels that Cartier-Bresson
could rise above the deadening effects that journalistic assignments presumably
inflicted. *In each case he has achieved images which far transcend the usual
photographic reporting, though many of these images were created on assignment,:
Soby wrote. *Seemingly Cartier-Bresson's poetic imagination, far from being
stultified by specific commissions from the publishers of newspapers and
magazines, is never hired out to anyone but himself.: (Soby, 33).
This line of interpretation reached its apex with John Szarkowski, former
director of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In a wall label for his 1968 exhibition Cartier-Bresson: Recent Photographs,
Szarkowski tried to explain away Cartier-Bresson's photojournalism:
Notwithstanding his spirited and sophisticated advocacy of the
photo-journalist's role, however, the pictures shown here would suggest that
journalism has been the occasion, not the motive force, of his own best work.
Journalism concerns itself primarily with the world of hierarchical events,
while Cartier-Bresson concerns himself first of all with the quality of ordinary
life. Few of his pictures are tied to newsworthy episodes; although made in the
hundredth part of a second, they speak of the character of decades and
generations.< Cartier-Bresson is not a photo-journalist, he is a photo
philosopher. (Szarkowski, np).
This position continues to the recent past. The most recent historical account
of Cartier-Bresson's work was a 1987 exhibition catalog essay by Peter Galassi,
then Szarkowski's assistant and now his successor at MoMA. In Henri
Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, Galassi acknowledges in a footnote that
Cartier-Bresson did produce photographic reportages in the French magazine Vu in
1933, and in the American magazine New Theatre in 1935. *Despite these isolated
exceptions, it is clear that in the thirties Cartier-Bresson worked almost
exclusively for himself,: Galassi maintains (48, fn 59).
Based on Cartier-Bresson's frequent use of d]paysement and juxtaposition,
Galassi argues that his early work was surrealist. D]paysement, which literally
means to be removed from one's native country, can best be understood as
disorientation. The ordinary, wrenched from its familiar context, triggers
extraordinary associations. This 1933 photograph made in Valencia, Spain,
illustrates Cartier-Bresson's use of disassociation.  While the boy's expression
suggests he is in a state of ecstasy, he is in fact watching a ball that he has
tossed up in the air and out of the photograph's frame. Juxtaposition of
unrelated elements, also provokes psychic reveries. This witty and risque 1932
photograph of a statue in Martigues, France, exemplifies the possibilities of
juxtaposition.  Numerous examples of both strategies exist among
Cartier-Bresson's photographs. Galassi (46) proposes that this surrealism should
be read forward throughout his career: *[I]f seen from the viewpoint of the
early workPif interpreted as an artful inventionPthe later work is enriched.:
Before this claim can be evaluated, the common misunderstanding of surrealism
must be addressed. In America, it has been equated primarily with Salvador
Dali's paintings. Largely because of their content, the adjective *surreal: has
been debased to a synonym for weird. Few Americans understand surrealism as an
artistic and literary strategy to liberate the human psyche and as a political
movement which aimed to overthrow the European political and economic order
during the period between the two world wars.
Surrealism sprang from twin roots in Dadaist anarchy and Freudian theories of
human consciousness. It soon tapped into a third source, Communism. Many
surrealists had been Dadaists during World War I, and they continued to
subscribe to that movement's tactic of using art to attack capitalism's social,
economic, and political structure. Because the Dadaists blamed the capitalist
system for the horrors of World War I, their efforts to depose the bourgeoisie
(the capitalist class) assumed a religious zeal.
In the early 1920s, with the war behind them, the surrealists turned from
Dadaism's nihilism to a more positive approach. Adapting Sigmund Freud's
theories, they sought to unite the conscious and unconscious levels of the mind.
As Andr] Breton, the group's leader and chief theorist, expressed it: *I believe
in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are
seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if
one may so speak.: (1924, 14). Breton grounded surrealism in the Freudian
concepts of free association and the importance of dreams: *Surrealism is based
on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected
associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of
thought.: Surrealism functioned, Breton explained, *in the absence of any
control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.: (1924,
Breton called this lack of rational control *psychic automatism.: One example of
psychic automatism was automatic writing. Poets and writers wrote so fast that
their logical faculties could no longer control the flow of words. This produced
associations of unrelated words that triggered the surreal experience. The 35mm
camera offered the potential for pure psychic automatism for the photographer.
It eliminated the necessity of controlling the subject. The photographer could
react intuitively to a fluid situation, clicking the shutter faster than his
conscious logic could control. Because most viewers assumed that photographs
were a literal transcription of reality, the pictorial ambiguities that resulted
were especially potent in prompting a surreal experience for them. These are the
fundamental dimensions of Galassi's argument.
Cartier-Bresson claims to be a surrealist. While his understanding of the word
accepts some of Breton's theories about the subconscious, it has nothing to do
with the aesthetics of his photography. He has never located his surrealism in
his images. He disdains surrealism as an aesthetic style. He calls the
surrealists' paintings *literary,: which for him is a term of scorn when applied
to an art which should be visual. Instead, he situated his surrealism in his
imagination and in his rebellious approach to life. In an 1975 article he
rejected surreal paintings. *I was influenced by surrealism,: he wrote. *And
surrealism, it's not making strange pictures; it's the power of imagination. It
is a power and a respect of imagination.: (1975, 31).
In a 1986 conversation with the photography writer and editor Gilles Mora, he
stated that for him surrealism meant revolt as an approach to life. *I was
marked, not by surrealist painting, but by the conceptions of Breton, at a very
young age, around 192611927.< The conception of Surrealism by Breton appealed to
me greatly, the role of spontaneous expression, of intuition and especially the
attitude of revolt.: (Mora, 117).
Mora, responded, *For the Surrealists, everything which went against the
established order, in art, a revolt in general <:
*Absolutely,: Cartier-Bresson interrupted. *In art, but also in life.: (Mora,
In the summer of 1994, I sent an early draft of my book to Cartier-Bresson who
annotated it with his reactions. The manuscript included surreal readings of
three of his photographs. They attempted to illustrate how a surrealist might
use his pictures to attain a state of psychic reverie. Regarding his 1932
photograph of two men standing next to a burlap curtain in Brussels,  one
interpretation pointed out how the startled expression of the man in the
foreground portrayed him as a frightened, vulnerable, urban prey, and how his
predator is not hard to sight. *At the lower right,: the manuscript read, *what
many viewers might dismiss as a mere shadow takes on, for the surrealist
fantasizer, the contours of an open-mouthed beastPa terrestrial shark about to
consume its victim.: In the margin, next to this passage, Cartier-Bresson wrote:
*Why analyze all that? It never came to my mind then nor afterwards.: (1994, np)
The attempts by the art world to minimize Cartier-Bresson's photojournalism
coincide with his own rejection of photojournalism. In a 1974 interview with the
Parisian daily newspaper Le Monde he disavowed photography. *Photography no
longer interests me,: (Bourde, 1974, 13) he declared. In a 1973 interview he
called himself *a very bad reporter and a photojournalist.: (Seed, 1973,        108)
In a conversation in April 1990, he insisted vehemently that he had never been a
photojournalist and had never produced reportages. *They want to put clothes on
me that don't fit me,: he told me.
Cartier-Bresson desires with all his power to disassociate himself from
journalism. Notwithstanding the voluminous publication of his photographs by
mass-circulation magazinesPI found more than 500 citations of work published in
magazinesPhe is convinced that he was engaged in a private pursuit that had
nothing to do with journalism except on the most superficial level. In different
contexts he describes his activity as experiencing the world, keeping a visual
diary, using a mechanical sketch book, and engaging in Zen encounters that
united him with his subjects. He calls his camera *only a tool for instant
drawing.: Central to all these metaphors is his insistence that the fused act of
seeing, composing, and clicking the shutter is paramount, while the photograph
that results is an uninteresting by-product. *I adore taking a photo,: he said.
*Once it is taken, for me, the pleasure is finished, terminated.: (Desvergnes,
1979, 98) On another occasion, he expressed the same idea with the metaphor of a
hunter who kills game but is not interested in eating it.
Cartier-Bresson's denial of photojournalism accords with his equally adamant
rejection of photography. He has stated repeatedly that when he began
photographing in the 1930s, he did not know any photographers and had no
interest in the history of photography. *I had no curiosity for photography in
general,: he wrote (1994).*Yes I was snapping pictures, but my friends Nicolas
Nabokov, [and Alberto] Giacometti, to mention only some with a well-known name,
had nothing to do with photography. My life was mostly, very much mostly
elsewhere. My intimate friends had nothing to do with photography.: (1994)
Later when he became acquainted with photographers such as Robert Capa, David
Seymour (Chim), Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Walker Evans, he insists, they never
discussed photography. *In those days it would have sounded pompous, silly, and
pretentiously stupid to discuss photographs.: (1994). He says he found the
camera *a marvelous tool: and the act of photographing a compelling way to
experience the world, but for photography itself he felt nothing. *I respect my
cameraP[the] hell with photography per se since those days and still now.:
Occasionally Cartier-Bresson will acknowledge his ties with the picture
magazines. *I am extremely grateful to Life, Harper's Bazaar, Holiday, etc., who
set me free and paid for my upkeep and generous salary,: he wrote. (1994). And
again: *[I was] not ashamed to deal with magazines to communicate with the
average person.: For the most part, however, he insists that it was simply not
important that he photographed on assignment; reported on events, situations,
countries, and individuals; selected, sequenced, and captioned his pictures for
editors; and encouraged his agents to market his work to mass-circulation
magazines to the maximum extent possible. He made his living at it, he admits,
but his real interests were always *poetry, novels, drawing, painting, < music,
and friends.: (1994).
These denials, which date from the mid 1970s to the present, contrast sharply
with the commitment to photojournalism that he expressed from the late 1940s
through the early 1960s. His first major published statement about his work was
the preface to The Decisive Moment, a collection of his photographs published in
1952. In it he synthesized his theory of photographic reportage and his account
of the magazine world based on his experiences working with Vu, Regards,
Harper's Bazaar, Life, Paris-Match, and other illustrated magazines. The text is
important not merely because it corroborates that he thought of his work as
journalism, but because it delineates the intellectual framework within which he
produced his reportages.
These sixty paragraphs remain one of the best commentaries ever written on his
work. That Cartier-Bresson was writing as a journalist cannot be disputed. The
entire preface was written from the point of view of a magazine photojournalist
explaining his work and his world to a lay audience. His conception of that
world includes the ethics and working methods of magazine photojournalists;
their product, the picture story; the editors and designers who shape that
product's presentation; and the audience who consumes it. In several instances,
he spoke of himself as a *photo-reporter: and of his work as photographic
reportage. In the first occurrence he said that he did not understand reportage
when he began photographing, but over the years by learning from colleagues and
by studying the picture magazines he *eventually learnedPbit by bitPhow to make
a reportage with a camera, how to make a picture-story.: Significant to the
issue of his intentions is the fact that Cartier Bresson was interested, not in
an artistic, inward-turning self-expression, but in communicating with a mass
audience. *We photo-reporters are people who supply information to a world in a
hurry,: he wrote, *a world weighted down with preoccupations, prone to
cacophony, and full of beings with a hunger for information, and needing the
companionship of images.: (1952)
In the 1960s, he expressed the same idea to an interviewer, *The important thing
about our relations with the press is that it provides us with the possibility
of being in close contact with life's events,: he said. *What is most satisfying
for a photographer is not recognition, success and so forth. It's communication:
what you say can mean something to other people, can be of a certain
importance.: (1969, 92) Cartier-Bresson wanted his photography distributed to
mass audiences, not just to the         cultural elite who saw it in museum
Because he claims to be a surrealist, it is important to note that
Cartier-Bresson has always photographed as a realist. He has made numerous
statements which establish his commitment to realism. In The Decisive Moment, he
insisted on fidelity to reality. *Our task is to perceive reality, almost
simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera,: he wrote
(1952). And again: *We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are
shooting, nor must we manipulate the results in a darkroom.: (1952) Although he
rejected raw facts as uninteresting, he did find them useful for the higher
purpose of communicating reality: *Through facts, however, we can reach an
understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the
essential ones which communicate reality.: (1952) He decried portraits that
flatter their subjects, because *the result is no longer real.: He described the
act of photographing as extracting the subject from the undifferentiated chaos
of reality. *Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of
real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject
within the mass of reality.: (1952)
Perhaps more than any other statement, his comment in a 1954 interview expressed
the faith of the realist that working from nature is superior to inventing:
*Reality is sufficiently rich, it is much more than we are able to imagine.:
(1954, 6). This belief is the foundation of his repeated insistence that he
*takes: instead of *makes: his photographs.
Cartier-Bresson's ideas about, and practice of, realism did not appear in a
vacuum. His friends and early photographic colleagues, Robert Capa and Chim,
came out of the Berlin tradition of magazine photojournalism. The magazine
editor Stefan Lorant was a major force in establishing this tradition. Lorant
articulated realist principles remarkably similar to those which Cartier-Bresson
expressed in The Decisive Moment:
That the photograph should not be posed; that the camera should be like a
notebook of the trained reporter, which records contemporary events as they
happen without trying to stop them to make a picture; that people should be
photographed as they really are and not as they would like to appear; that
photo-reportage should concern itself with men and women of every kind and not
simply with a small social clique; that everyday life should be portrayed in a
realistic unselfconscious way (Lorant, 22).
With his realism established, I want to argue that on occasion Cartier-Bresson
worked as a social realistPa photographer who used his camera to expose the
problems of society. In his native France, the tradition of social realism
begins in the 1840s with the painter Gustave Courbet. He and the social realists
in art and literature who followed him, inverted the scale of values that the
French Academy espoused. They substituted ugliness for beauty, poverty for
wealth, prostitutes for princesses, and proletarians for capitalists.
This last sentence could stand as an inventory of Cartier-Bresson's subjects in
the 1930s. He began photographing at a time when the horrors of World War I had
put an end to the idealized style of French Pictorialism. As Alain Sayag wrote:
*The dusky tones and pictorialist half-light, that `stifling atmosphere' of the
turn-of-the-century, would brutally be cast away by images that removed the
`make-up from reality' and exposed the cruel truth of man's relations with the
world.: (Sayag, 16).
There is a brutal quality to some of Cartier-Bresson's early pictures, but it
was not a brutality that he condoned or sought to perpetuate. Rather, he sought
to expose the depredations of capitalist society. The streets he *prowled: were
full of homeless, destitute men, of ragamuffin children, of gypsies,
prostitutes, striking workers, and others outside the margins of respectable
society. In contrast to the precious, idealized iconography of much Pictorialist
subject matter, his photographs strip bare the raw harshness of life. The warm
security in which three girls play in Clarence H. White's The Ring Toss,
contrasts with Cartier-Bresson's picture of boys, one of them on crutches,
playing among the ruins of Seville, Spain.  The idealized nudes of White, Anne
W. Brigman, and E.J. Constant Puyo eliminate all imperfections through soft
lighting, soft focus, and darkroom manipulation. These perfected bodies contrast
with the sagging flesh of the prostitutes whom Cartier-Bresson photographed in
Alicante, Spain,  and with the brazen nakedness of the shaven sex of his
traveling companion Leonor Fini, photographed in an Italian pool.
One of Cartier-Bresson's most emotionally wrenching photographs was taken in
1932 in Aubervillers, in the *Red ring: of proletarian suburbs around Paris.  A
boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, leans against the wall of a building
covered with rusting corrugated siding. An unpainted wood building and a
littered dirt street establish the confines of the pictorial space and the
horizons of the boy's world. Everything he wears from his cap to his overcoat to
his boots is oversized, tattered, handed down for the second or third time. In
place of buttons a single safety pin holds his coat together. The photograph is
straightforward, devoid of any dramatic devices or photographic gimmicks. Every
inch is imbedded with grinding poverty. Fatigued, weighted down beneath the
clothes and the worries of an adult world, the boy leans for support against the
wall. His head tilts downward. His facial muscles are slack. His eyes focus on
nothing in particular. Only his left arm, cocked akimbo on his hip, shows any
resistance to the terrible gravity of poverty. Cartier-Bresson has not
sentimentalized his subject. He has provided no stylistic or narrative clues to
the picture's meaning. The child simply exists, and the viewer must construct
his own response to the picture and the society that produced it.
A year later in Madrid, Cartier-Bresson photographed another socially-conscious
image whose power derives from its extreme simplicity.  Squatting against a
stone wall, a father cradles his son in his arms. The framing and composition
are precise. The top edge allows enough space to define the round form of the
man's close-cropped, black hair. He is positioned off-center to the right,
making the stone that frames him on the left roughly twice the width of that on
the right. It is possible to categorize this picture as one of the hundreds of
portraits Cartier-Bresson has taken of ordinary people, but this fails to
account for the man's expression of utter desperation. Unlike the Aubervillers
picture, there are no overt clues of poverty in this photograph. Both the man
and his son are well kempt. Their clothes do not appear dirty or tattered. Only
the father's expression suggests the gravity of his situation. His jaw is set,
his mouth taut, his eyes fixated. There is about his face the intensity of a
trapped animal. His desperation is intensified by the innocence of the child
who, unaware of his father's plight, gazes distractedly at his fingers. The
caption for a variant of this photograph, published in The Decisive Moment,
reveals the man's look of desperation was not just a fleeting expression. It
reads: *Madrid, Spain, 1933. An unemployed man and his child.: (Cartier-Bresson,
1952, np).
In mood and subject matter this photograph recalls a more famous photograph of
the Depression era, Dorothea Lange's 1936 Migrant Mother.  In its mood of
despair, Cartier-Bresson's picture seems the more extreme of the two. To be
sure, the clothing of the American woman and her children is more tattered, but
her expression conveys worry not desperation. One senses she has inner resources
on which to draw. The face of the Madrid father suggests only hopelessness.
There is documentary evidence to support this social realist interpretation of
these photographs. A 1974 comment by Cartier-Bresson suggests that as a young
man he possessed the social conscience and zeal of a crusader. Referring to the
late 1920s, he said, *Painting and changing the world counted more than anything
else in my life.: (Bourde, 1974, 13). He told another interviewer, *The
adventurer in me felt obliged to testify with a quicker instrument than a brush
to the scars of the world.: (Galassi, 16) Cartier-Bresson's recognition of the
scars of the worldPsocial injusticePand his desire to change the worldPredress
that injusticePestablish that he did photograph with a social conscience. His
attempts to expose social injustice were absolutely consistent with his
surrealist revolt against the capitalist class, the perceived cause of that
injustice, absolutely consistent with Breton's call for the overthrow of the
bourgeois system.
Cartier-Bresson's social realism is grounded in his life experiences. The oldest
son of an extremely wealthy textile-manufacturing family, he refused to enter
his father's business and rejected his family's social and economic class. Since
his teenage years, European politics exerted an inescapable influence on him.
During the 1930s, he aligned himself with two major political currents. The
first was a broad opposition to the capitalist class, which many intellectuals
blamed for World War I and the ravages of the Depression. The second was the
rise of the left in opposition to the Fascism of Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini.
Although there is no documentary evidence that Cartier-Bresson joined the
Communist Party, his sympathy was certainly with the proletariat. Andr] Pieyre
de Mandiargues, his friend and companion since childhood, dated their interest
in Communism to the late 1920s. *[W]e discovered at the same time, together or
separately, most of the things which were going to become essential a little
later < the philosophy of Hegel, Marx and Communism,: Mandiargues wrote. (1975,
67) Of the early 1930s, a friend of Robert Capa's observed *Cartier-Bresson
would not answer the telephone in the morning until he had read L'Humanit] [the
French Communist newspaper] and mastered the official line for the day.:
(Whelan, 58)
Cartier-Bresson spent much of 1935 in New York City, where he lived with
Nicholas Nabokov, a Russian emigree composer. Nabokov recalled how much hope
Cartier-Bresson placed in Communism: *We had long talks mostly on morals and
politics,: he wrote. *I suppose that both of us were radicals. But to
Cartier-Bresson, the Communist movement was the bearer of history, of mankind's
futurePespecially in those years, when Hitler had saddled Germany and when a
civil war was about to explode in Spain.: (1975, 201)
Following his stay in New York, Cartier-Bresson returned to Paris, where his
friends Capa and Chim were photographing for two Communist publications, the
daily newspaper Ce Soir and the weekly magazine Regards. He soon joined them,
producing several reportages for the magazine and one for the newspaper.
One of Cartier-Bresson's most famous pictures from this period, Sunday Afternoon
on the Banks of the Marne,  has an historical context that puts it at the center
of the political struggles of the French left. This photograph, which has been
deliberately misdated as 1938 and 1939, is typically interpreted as showing the
decisive moment aesthetic in conjunction with the human condition subject
matter. Four people, masterfully arranged on a sloping river bank, enjoy the
pleasures of good food and companionship. Unaware of the photographer, they are
fixed on film at the instant the man in the left foreground replenishes his
glass of wine. *There is no more powerful image of contentment in the history of
photography,: one writer has declared. (Coonan, 8). Another commentator has seen
the picture as a photographic homage to         douard Manet's painting Le d]jeuener
sur l'herbe. (Gantier, 64).
In fact, the photograph shows the results of the first legislative victory of
the Popular Front, a coalition of socialist, communist and radical parties that
won a parliamentary majority in the elections of April1May, 1936. Immediately
after the elections, French workers went on strike, occupying factories all over
the country. The new Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum negotiated with
representatives of French industry to end the occupation. Blum got the
industrialists to agree to guaranteed collective bargaining, a blanket wage
increase averaging twelve percent, a forty-hour work week, andPfor the first
time in French historyPpaid vacations for workers. After Blum's coalition
legislated the agreements, Cartier-Bresson took numerous photographs of workers
enjoying their first paid vacations, including two reportages for Regards, and
this photograph.
Cartier-Bresson himself saw his political choices during the 1930s as
inevitable. *Hitler was at our backs,: he told me in a 1990 conversation, *We
were all on the left. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to be proud
From his political engagement in the 1930s, I want to move forward to a
reportage that Cartier-Bresson produced on the American Civil Rights movement in
1961. While there is not time to trace Cartier-Bresson's politics during the
intervening 25 years, I can assert that he maintained his attitude of revolt
toward life and capitalist society. In 1961, he turned his rebellious lens on
American racism.
The idea for his civil rights reportage originated with Cornell Capa, younger
brother of Robert Capa. Cornell had been a staff photographer Life magazine
until his brother was killed in Vietnam in 1954. At that point, he assumed the
leadership of Magnum Photos, the agency that Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson and
others had established in 1947. Cornell Capa had photographed the Kennedys, and
when John F. Kennedy was elected president he proposed, as a Magnum project, a
book that would examine the first 100 days of Kennedy's administration. He asked
Cartier-Bresson to photograph the chapter that dealt with the efforts to combat
institutionalized racism in the south which were spearheaded by Attorney General
Robert Kennedy. Cartier-Bresson's story was published in a chapter entitled
*Civil Rights: The Strangest Revolt: in the book Let Us Begin: The First 100
Days of the Kennedy Administration. The text for the chapter was written by
Wallace Westerfeldt Jr.
Some of the resulting photographs have formal qualities that lift them above a
mere recording of facts; in other words, they may be approached as art.
Nonetheless, the intentionality of Cartier-Bresson's reportage, as revealed by
the kinds of situations he sought out, establish that he was using photography
as a weapon to expose racism. While some of the photographs are generalized
statements about racism, many more are linked directly to specific events of
1961. For example, several rolls show a tent city in rural Tennessee, called
*Freedom Village.:  According to field captions written by Westerfeldt, it was
inhabited by *Negro families evicted by white landowners for daring to register
to vote in Fayette County, Tenn.: Other rolls show an Atlanta slum called
*Alpine: where *negroes live in wooden shacks, many without toilet facilities.:
There are photographs of a sit-in at a Nashville drugstore and of
African-Americans being demeaned by whites.  In one, a black man, hands stuffed
in his pockets, adopts a shuffling pose as he listens to a stern faced bill
collector.  The latter's open debit book creates a barrier between the two men.
Its caption read, *Another installment payment is due and collected.: (Capa,
88). The book also published a three-picture sequence on the civil rights
movement's *stand-in: tactic.  In it, several white men, their faces twisted by
anger and hate, block African-American youths from entering a movie theater. The
Magnum caption read:
In Nashville, Tennessee, Negroes have won the fight for integrated lunch
counters. Now they are fightingPby peaceful methodsPfor equal entrance in
theatres. Here a young Nashville student stands hands in pocket by the theatre's
box office while whites try to bar his entrance. (Westerfeldt).
While these pictures document overt injustices, one photograph symbolizes the
inequality of racism in a more subtle way.  The only photograph from this
reportage to be included in Cartier-Bresson's permanent collection, it shows a
ramshackle country store in Hinds County, Mississippi. Cartier-Bresson has
captured realistic details which thirty years later strike a viewer as sardonic.
Large chunks of siding have fallen away from the store, exposing tar paper and
bare boards. A decal on its door promotes Roi Tan as *America's Largest Selling
10" Cigar.: Tin signs tacked to the walls advertise Dr. Pepper, Royal Crown
Cola, and Viceroy cigarettes. The hard-packed dirt in front of the store is
littered with a car hubcap and tin cans.
On this pictorial stage are three men, one white and two African-American. The
white man sprawls at the center of a bench; his extended arms monopolize its
entire length. His comfortable slouch, open body language, and smirking
expression indicate he is in command of the situation. He has nothing to fear
and nothing to share. While his bench appears as ramshackled as the store, it
clearly was made as a bench with a solid back and wide seat. In contrast, the
two black men balance themselves on a makeshift bench that appears to be no more
than a plank propped up by four sticks. Their expressions are calculatedly
neutral, but their body language betrays life-long habits of cautious
submission. Their legs are tightly crossed; their arms are folded protectively
across their midsections; they perch gingerly on their precarious plank.
The social criticism in this picture has been pointed out by other writers. What
they have not noted, however, is that the image was taken as part of a larger
body of work intended to expose American racism. That intentionality is clear in
Westerfeldt's caption:
The Negro's plight is symbolized in this picture: at Hinds County, Mississippi,
outside a grocery store, a white citizen complacently lounges on a large
comfortable bench while two Negroes huddle on a small rickety one. Southern
whites insist facilities are *separate but equal.: (Westerfeldt).
In subsequent reproductions in Cartier-Bresson's corpus and books this
photograph has been decontextualized; it is captioned with only a date and place
name, creating an ambiguity about its meaning. The viewer cannot be certain
whether the critique of racism is his own construction or whether the
photographer recognized and intended it. Examining the historical
evidencePincluding the entire reportage as it was originally published and the
verbal context that accompanied itPeliminates any ambiguity. The attack on
racism that others have read into the photograph is no accident. It was intended
by Cartier-Bresson.
In addition to this negative portrayal of racism, Cartier-Bresson produced
positive photographs promoting integration as an ideal. Two pictures from New
Orleans showed *Negro and white inhabitants chat[ting] peacefully with one
another: and *White and colored walk[ing] the streets of New Orleans with a
sense of equality.: (Westerfeldt)  The Crescent City was described as
*relatively integrated: and was cited as a model for what other southern cities
could become.
Other photographs celebrated the accomplishments of African-Americans through
education and commerce. The slum scenes were balanced by pictures of a middle
class black neighborhood in Atlanta, where homes cost from $10,000 to $13,000.
Several photographs explored the black-owned Citizens Trust Company in Atlanta.
Pictures from a biology lab at Tuskegee Institute's veterinary school and from
an integrated school in Nashville127 portrayed the faith that education would
bring an end to racism and provide a means for African-Americans to escape its
depredations.  A photograph from a Nashville elementary school showed two second
graders, a black boy and white girl, sharing a school book.  Westerfeldt's
caption expressed the optimistic hope that school integration coupled with
childhood innocence would overcome racism.
This was one of the first schools to put through integration. While at first
there was some violence, desegregation was quickly accepted by both parents and
pupils. The children now both play and study together and have forgotten the
days when this was considered impossible. (Westerfeldt).
Several African-American leaders were photographed by Cartier-Bresson as part of
the reportage. They included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X,  the Rev.
Wyatt Tee Walker, and Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College in
To summarize, Cartier-Bresson's civil rights reportage included three
fundamental elements: the problem, the ideal situation, and the means to achieve
that ideal. The problem was racism, exposed in the inequality at the Mississippi
general store, in the injustice of the tent village, and in the hostility of the
confrontation outside the Nashville movie theater. The ideal situation was
racial integration and harmony, depicted in the second-grade classroom in
Nashville and in the New Orleans street scenes. The forces of change included
such self-help methods as education and black business enterprise, the
non-violent tactics of sit-ins and stand-ins, and the movement's leaders. There
was also a small group of photographs showing the separatist Black Muslim
movement in northern cities as an alternative to the mainstream civil rights
movement which sought integration.
Cartier-Bresson's 1961 civil rights reportage does not fit comfortably within
the common understanding of his work. Although he insists that photography
cannot prove anything, in this reportage he did use his camera as a weapon to
expose a social problem and promote social change. Although he has styled
himself as an intuitive photographer who simply wandered the globe capturing
whatever presented itself as visually interesting, in this case, he purposefully
assembled a number of elements to tell a complex story. Although he disdains
documentation and denies that he ever did reportage, in 1961, he recorded an
historical struggle in the form of a picture story. Let Us Begin reached a small
audience. It is now out of print and forgotten. Only one photograph from this
reportagePthe Hinds County storePhas survived in Cartier-Bresson's permanent
collection and published anthologies, but its original intent has been obscured.
Because of this historical decontextualization, the fact that on at least one
occasion Cartier-Bresson worked as a socially concerned photographer with the
intention of exposing injustice has also been obscured.
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