Henri Cartier-Bresson’s long life was one unbroken burst of creativity. As a young man, he quickly left music studies behind. Then he began to express his artistry by painting and drawing. He definitely considered himself greatly inspired and influenced by the Surrealist painters. All told, he was a prolific multimedia artist who became known primarily for his photography.
Just to show you the seductive appeal of a Surrealism, here is one of Salvador Dali’s most famous works evoking the fragility of dreams and memory. Time slides away like silk.
Cartier-Bresson said that photography is reactive and its art depends upon finding the decisive moment to capture the image. In contrast, he described painting and drawing as meditative. These are two major thoughts on the creative process for the two kinds of art
HERE’S THE QUESTION.
How does the creative process of drawing and painting differ from that of photography? One way to find answers to that question would be to look at his painting containing a photograph, “Aged Man #2”.
About the decisive moment in photography, Bresson said,
“Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick. So, if you miss the picture, you’ve missed it. [It’s an] expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.”
In the creative act, the photographer, especially a street photographer, will work much more quickly than a painter. The photographer is intent on catching the image “on the fly” and must be quick. But much may happen beforehand. As Cartier-Bresson says the photographer must wait at first for the right moment, create the right composition, find the right light and capture the right expression. He is reacting to what he sees. But then he must act decisively in a flash. Rather like pouncing! Of course, over his career, he did exactly that thousands of times.
The photograph patched onto the centre of the canvas depicts the so-called real world and yet, given the costume-like attire of the old man, the effect is definitely surreal.
It’s a photograph which raises a myriad of questions. Why is he getting into the car? Why are those people, who are dressed normally, watching him? What’s just happened or is about to happen? I certainly think he snapped the shutter at just the right moment–the decisive moment. Of course, the composition of the photo is effective in that the eye “travels” from the old man’s oddly clad figure and then is taken off to the distant building in the background through that interesting line of people watching him. The willowy shapes in the painting contrast with the sharp, angular lines of the axle and the frame of the photograph in the centre of the composition.
The painting, Aged Man # 2, certainly has that dream-like quality of the Surrealists. It’s interesting to note that this work [and that of the Surrealists] was created just at the time that Freud and Carl Jung were acquainting us with the subconscious dream state. Just as they were exploring what lies underneath in the psyche, so were many artists. From looking at the art produced then I think both artists and psychiatrists were finding the same “things”.
How did Cartier-Bresson create the dream like atmosphere in this painting? His soft, willowy shapes of floating human figures, draped on the left side of the canvas, certainly contributed to the impression. Reminds you of Chagall and his floating humans, doesn’t it? The foreground of Cartier-Bresson’s painting is light and coloured in pink and yellow. That makes me think my view is from the interior of the artist’s mind. From it, he looks out upon so-called “reality” as shown in the photograph of the elderly man. And so, Cartier-Bresson has perhaps created a dream vision plus the mind of the dreamer/creator who observes.
But here’s my favourite part. The photograph of the old man is patched on to the painting and yet it somehow flows into the painting and becomes an integral part of it. To the left in the photo there is a line of people looking at the old man. That line of people is repeated in the painting suggesting a sort of linking or continuation of two separate worlds. For me, that’s a really effective integration of not only two different modes of expression [camera and paintbrush] but two different worlds—our external reality as captured in the photo and the interior view of the mind [conscious/subconscious].
I can see that, before he began to paint anything on that canvas, he likely made a lot of different choices. The first would be the concept [the fundamental “thing”] he wanted to express within himself. I’m not suggesting that necessarily he sat down and consciously decided to create those floating figures or that axle or the disembodied arm above it. No, as a matter of fact, he might well have seen those shapes “grow” on the canvas before his eyes. That would mean the shapes came floating out of his subconscious and through his brush. The same might be true of his colour choice of pink and yellow.
These three photographs by Cartier-Bresson are fine examples of the decisive moment. The photographer has to be alert and aware of his surroundings so he can find that decisive moment and snap the shutter. At the same time, among a hundred other concerns, he has to put his sense of composition and light to work.
But that process does not seem to require the same drawing upon one’s inner self as a painting or drawing might. Of course, if the artist is simply trying to get the perspective right in drawing a country lane, he is acting more like the photographer in recording.
As Cartier-Bresson says, the painter is meditative. He works much more slowly over months or years on a piece. It is possible that he draws his subject matter from outside himself—for example, as in painting a portrait or a landscape. Undoubtedly, in creating he will draw upon what is inside himself but, more likely, the primary inspiration comes from what he sees.
Perhaps it is a much more tactile experience for the artist who paints or draws—handling the brush, the consistency and colour of the paint or the feel of the charcoal in hand. Does the artist [and/or the art] gain of lose anything from this physical contact? And then, there is the state of mind. Perhaps the painter has a greater opportunity to get into and experience that state of “flow” which comes with meditation over a period of time.But Cartier-Bresson wasn’t the only photographer influenced by painters or the only one to switch from one medium to another. Just think of Eugene Atget the Parisian photographer who sold his photographs to many a Surrealist who found inspiration in his work.
Personally, I have often thought that my form of meditation is writing novels. That can take a very long time and probably should. It gives me the opportunity to dig down deep and see what I can find. I know it’s going well [at least the initial creative stage] if it just seems to flow out. I can’t think of a better way to describe the process and I know many other artists would say the same.
Man Ray, another painter and photographer, was very active around this time and painted and photographed.
What to conclude? Yes, the creative process of drawing and painting is certainly different from photography. But certainly there are many multimedia artists entirely comfortable with both [or more] forms of expression as was Cartier-Bresson himself.
It gets even more interesting when an artist combines a variety of forms such as in conceptual art where there may be painting, film, photographs, music and a performance of some kind. Also in the future, I think visual art will be seen increasingly as an experience and begin to explore its interior “space” more and more, I think we can look forward to some pretty interesting work. In fact, I heard a “trend-observer” on the radio say that people were now beginning to look more for experiences than for things or products.
In this video Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are very nicely combined with some “Parisian” music for your enjoyment and just to set the mood. These photographs strike something else which, I think, really makes them ART. Cartier-Bresson represents all facets of the nature of human beings yet gives them individual and, at the same time, universal meaning of many combined multimedia forms of expression.
So, here are some more questions. As an artist or any sort of creative person, have you developed a process for your work? I’d love to hear so, please leave a comment about that or anything else this post has brought to mind. Remember the space is infinite. [I think?]
And if you like thinking about these kinds of questions, you might like to follow Alexander Wainwright, landscape artist in The Trilogy of Remembrance where he perpetually searches for his muse and contends with his fellow artist and nemesis, Rinaldo, the conceptual artist. Enjoy!
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
Joseph Campbell Foundation has just recently selected the novels of The Trilogy of Remembrance [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing] along with the works of fifteen other authors as novels with mythic themes. I am honoured to be included along with Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, J.R.R. Tolkein and James Joyce in this group. You can find the Joseph Campbell Foundation Amazon page right here.