Part 1 – Cartier-Bresson and the move away from Surrealism

Cartier-Bresson was known to have been heavily influenced by Surrealism in his early years as a photographer, he socialised with Breton and other Surrealists in Paris in the 1920’s and was inspired by the idea of allowing subconscious thoughts to create images.

The British Photo History website described how Cartier-Bresson photographed political events in Paris such as the French liberation and the 1962 massacre and the following quote from him seems to imply a certain level of automation in his image creation which of course would link him to the idea of surrealism:-

‘I kept walking the streets, highly strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera.’  (Pritchard, M. 2016)

However, further research into Cartier-Bresson and how his work has been exhibited, has persuaded me to ensure I avoid type-casting photographers as belonging to a particular genre or artistic movement:

In her article ‘Beyond the Decisive Moment’, Ellie Armon Azoulay reviews the Cartier-Bresson exhibition curated by Clément Chéroux at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2014. She explains that the exhibition was arranged in three sections, each of which spanning a particular time period :-

  • 1926-35 – Mostly marked by early, Surrealist photographs made during his travels;
  • 1936-46 – Distinguished by his return from the US; and
  • 1947 – 1970s – Begins with the foundation of Magnum Photos in 1947 and ends in the 1970s when he retired from Photography and turned to drawing.

Azoulay is critical of the restriction that classifying the images places on their meaning. She explains… ‘in the second section of the exhibition, “The Attraction of Surrealism,” a large number of photographs are read through the prism of Surrealism, which diminishes their humanistic, social, and political aspects.’ The example she uses is the following image of Livorno, Italy (1933):-


She explains ‘the wall text reads: “the viewer would dearly love to lift the cloth, but the image cannot be unveiled: that is how our desire to see it aroused.” This invocation of the “veiled erotic” seems out of place’.  (Azoulay, E.A. 2014)

In order to find out more for myself, I visited the Cartier-Bresson ‘Paris’ exhibition at the University of East Anglia where 81 images captured between 1929 and 1985 were on display. I wanted to see if I could distinguish any point in time where the influence of Surrealism started to become absent from his work.

The images were an ecletic mixture of different photographic styles and genres but nevertheless there were some early images clearly influenced by Cartier-Bressons interest in Surrealism:-

Both photographs above were taken in 1932 and the image to the left, harks back to the Surrealist obsession with depicting something which looks alive but isn’t (or vice versa), while the image to the right clearly echoes the Surrealist idea of ‘doubling’ (originating from Freud’s essay on the ‘uncanny’), and ‘inexplicable repetitions’.


However, other images in the exhibition from his earlier years as a photographer, appear to be making more of a social statement such as this photograph ‘La Villette’, taken in 1929. There may be a tenuous link to Surrealism in the fact that the lifeless body on the ground appears to have no head and a dark menacing form, but I sense that the essence of this photograph is all about depicting the harsh life on the streets during the years of the Depression post WW1.

It’s true that many of the later photographs curated in the exhibition appeared to have little to do with Surrealism, and more to do with e.g. composition or communicating the sense of a person via a portrait, such as in the two examples below:-

Above left: The Palais Royal Gardens. 1959.
Above right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Le Pont des Arts, Paris, 1946

Both of these images appeal to me. The Palais Royal Gardens photograph is beautiful in its movement generated by the curved rows of trees, framed by the perfectly placed row of houses in the background. The comtemplative portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre is atmospheric with the fog as well as being perfectly composed with the main subject obvious and his companion deliberately cropped out of the frame.

I get a sense that whilst Cartier-Bresson moved away from creating the more obvious Surrealist-typee photographs, he was always influenced by the movement throughout his career. In ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work’, Peter Galassi selected the following quotation which highlighted this idea:-

“Alone, the Surrealist wanders the streets without destination but with a premeditated alertness for the unexpected detail that will release a marvelous and compelling reality just beneath the banal surface of ordinary existence.”

He goes on to express : ‘The geometric formalism of Renaissance painting and the serendipity of Surrealism were two key influences on Cartier-Bresson’s photography…. Over the next half century Cartier-Bresson would travel the world with a Leica in one hand… inwardly he held onto the spirit of Surrealism while outwardly calling himself a photojournalist’. (Springer, M. 2011)

Sean O’Hagan from the Guardian re-iterated this idea by selecting another of Cartier-Bresson’s quotations:- ‘Surrealism has had a profound effect on me and all my life I have done my utmost never to betray it’ (O’Hagan, S. 2014)

Further insight from the man himself can be heard in the following video clip:-



Pritchard, M. (2016) Exhibition: Henri Cartier-Bresson: PARIS / 23 April-29 August. At Accessed at 1/9/2016

Azoulay, E.A. (2014) Beyond the Decisive Moment. At Accessed at 2/9/2016

Springer, M. (2011) Iconic Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson takes you inside his Creative World. At  Accessed at 1/9/2016

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Comrade Cartier-Bresson: the great photographer revealed as a communist. At   Accessed at 3/9/2016

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