When I go on holiday I actually work. I know there are a lot of people who’s idea of a vacation is sitting on a beach all day and doing nothing, and I’ve tried that and it makes me feel restless. I need to be actively learning something, and I find that learning actually recharges and refreshes my mind. Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, famously said that our minds are like car batteries - when it’s dead you have to run the car to recharge it. I wholeheartedly subscribe to it.
On our trip to Paris, my wife and I stopped in at the Centre Pompidou to see the newly-opened Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit, charting his entire life’s photographic work, his philosophy, and his technique. I was excited beyond bounds - HCB’s work has been a driving influence ever since high school, when as a graduation gift my grandfather presented me with a copy of The Decisive Moment. Every cinematographer I’ve worked with can attest that I reference Cartier-Bresson in all of my documents. He and Robert Frank are the two visual pillars upon which all my cinematic references are built.
But truth be told - and almost shamefully - I never formally studied Cartier-Bresson, I just admired his photographs. I never read up about him other than a topical biography and his founding of Magnum, the international collective of photographers. I always reference a single quote by Cartier-Bresson, which I’ve committed to memory, as an ideology to my approach to showing horror and darkness onscreen:
"We aim to make terror beautiful so that it will become unforgettable, so that it will burn into people’s memories, so that they will do something to stop it, if they can. And if they cannot, they will at least understand what terror means.”
And that was the extent of it. So imagine my joy and fevered anticipation upon entering the Pompidou, to learn in depth about this man who so wholly influenced what I do. I came out a new artist, a new thinker, a new man. My approach to cinema, in my future projects, will forever be altered by what I learned in that extensive and exhaustive exhibit, which took over three hours to navigate.
The first major element I learned was that Cartier-Bresson, who was also a trained illustrator and painter, was adherent to the newly-minted Surrealist movement and the writings of poet/ philosopher André Breton. Breton, who in 1924 drafted the first Manifeste du surréalisme, declared surrealism as “pure psychic automatism,” i.e. a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move randomly and freely across the paper, where chance plays a large role in the final impression, and therefore the surrealist composition is freed of any kind of rational control. Cartier-Bresson, seeing truth in this, applied this to his photographs in a technique which can be seen across all of his compositions. While the human subjects of his photography tend to carry the emotional impact, the real artistic foundation of his work lay in the backgrounds.
Cartier-Bresson, with his naturally gifted artistic eye, selected backgrounds of high visual interest. Textures, proportions, shapes and natural graphics. He would set up his position in front of that selected background, and simply allow life to unfold in front. Rather than searching for people to photograph, he allowed people to traverse that area and photographed them in what he called the decisive moment - a moment where potential energy initially becomes kinetic. Cartier-Bresson applied the idea of automatism, of letting his subjects be free of rational control, and let them move across his canvas, where he would capture a specific moment. The results are powerful and beautiful, a combination of journalistic veracity, surrealist velocity, and pure aesthetic beauty.
It was an absolutely startling revelation to me, and in the exhibit I started scribbling down in my notebook how I could apply this to cinema. I’d realized I’d already started philosophizing about this method on this blog, when I wrote about John Huston’s film Fat City and making muscular, American films. . In that post I wrote that Huston crafted the film with “remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines.” Unknowingly, I recognized that Huston was, essentially, making a film in the way Cartier-Bresson photographed. However recognizing it and doing it are two totally different things, and I want to push the Surrealist vision further by embracing the second important thing I learned from the HCB exhibit, which are the thematic pillars of Surrealism.
Unbeknownst to me, Surrealist compositions have three central themes or focuses. The first is some sort of bondage, with items or people wrapped in fabric, tape, leather, or just about any other material. Cartier-Bresson made extensive use of muslin and transparent, textured materials in both his back and foregrounds, and there is an overriding dark sensuousness towards its use. When fabric or material was not available, he employed the human body.
The second theme is on aberrations of the human form. We see it in the works of Dali, where the human body is stretched, ballooned, fragmented and distorted. Cartier-Bresson, be it through lens selection and exposure or through actual subject matter of bodies shaped by environment, genetics or disease, captured the human form as if a subconscious expression of the inner self. Cartier-Bresson intentionally cropped out body parts, refrained from the full body form, and honed in on bodies to the point of abstraction. He used mannequins, statues and costume to warp our perspectives and proportions.
The third element is the notion of people actively dreaming. In Surrealism this is most often captured by showing people sleeping or with their eyes closed, but as time progressed, Cartier-Bresson expanded the idea of a dream fugue state of being by experimenting with frames within frames, creating three-dimensional objects on a flat plane, and photographing subjects from a higher, omniscient angle. The dream state is altogether bizarre but populated with familiar elements, and in that manner, Cartier-Bresson’s truths are indeed stranger than fiction.
These of course are my observations and are part of a deeper study as Cartier-Bresson continued to evolve, and I do not claim to be an authority on Surrealism or photography for that matter. But when in application to my own art, these are the creative starting points to something that resonates within my own aesthetics and worldview. I’ve longed to capture truth within the surreal and vice versa, and this jaunt into an artist whom I thought I knew exposed my own hubris. There is so much more to learn, and rather being daunted by that, I found it invigorating. I feel like an explorer on the eve of an expedition into dangerous territory, like a soldier armed with a new weapon he’s yet to master, like a kid who thought he knew all about music picking up a guitar for the first time. Cartier-Bresson continues to enrich my life, and I know he will continue to guide me throughout my life and career. A monumental sea change in how I work is afoot.