Surrealism of War, Survival, and Human Triumph


The Henri Cartier-Bresson show at the Modern Art Museum in San Francisco is a unique exhibition. Bresson, born into a wealthy Parisian family, rejected the family business and decided to travel. His unique photographic eye began in his early twenties when he traveled to Europe and Africa, often witnessing and documenting the aftermath of World War I. In his late twenties he developed his well-known photojournalistic style, which he became synonymous for.

Bresson is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most distinguished photographers of the twentieth century. He is known as the father of photojournalism. Bresson lived into his ninety-fifth year, 1908 -2004, traveling the world and documenting it, until the end of his life. He lived through historic changes, including two world wars, the Chinese revolution, Indonesia’s independence, and the installing and breaking down of the Berlin Wall. He captured many of these important events. His masterpieces were his photographs, and tools an early Leica and 35mm cameras. If you love photography, especially photojournalism, and have a passion for world history this is an exhibition not to be missed.

The retrospective exhibition includes early 35mm prints, rooms dedicated to photojournalism, world travels, and the years between World War I and World War II. The show is reminiscent of walking through a history book. Black and white platinum prints, many printed thirty to forty years after they were shot, vividly show scenes of working class people and the forgotten, laying abandoned and sometimes dead in the streets.  Many photographs do not have labels, however, individual images explain themselves explicitly as in the photo of the young mother with a desperate look on her face, holding a young baby, taken in Madrid, Spain in 1932, with her four other young children, including a young boy around eight years of age with a very serious look on his face. One sibling looks curiously at the camera, another child standing next to her brother has a sign strung around her neck, which undoubtedly explains their dire situation.  I found this print very poignant, and the image stayed with me for days.

The show moves on to Bresson’s photography of the war years; including photographs showing the desperation in the eyes of people traumatized by war, derelict buildings, and war refugees. There are haunting photographs such as the print labeled “At the liberation of a deportation camp, a Gestapo informer is recognized by a woman she had denounced, Dessau, Germany, 1945.” The black and white shot looks as if it is a still from the movie Shindler’s List. A woman looks shamed, and reconciled to her fate as she clenches her fists. The woman whom she denounced is captured in her anger and disgust, onlookers frown and gape, some smile slightly as if pleased with her denouncement. A man stands in his black and white concentration camp uniform resting his hand on his hip. There is a general look of disdain on their faces.  According to Jean Clair, the author of Europeans: Henri Cartier-Bresson,” Bresson was captured during the World War II, and spent four years in a Nazi slave camp, he succeeded in escaping on his fourth attempt.”  No longer a photographer or voyeur, he was now a victim of the Nazi’s and World War II, which left tens of millions dead, injured, homeless, and starving. His wartime photographs portray this period as only a person, who personally experienced the degradation and suffering, could.  Many of these images have stayed with me, some shocking and disturbing; realizing the suffering and degradation whole populations were experiencing at the time.

Bresson was a master at capturing pain as well as joy, there are many scenes of joyfulness in the show as in the photograph titled “ Gypsies, Granada, Spain, 1939,” showing two young men, one smiling happily, and the other blowing smoke towards the camera. In contrast to many scenes of anguish, this is an image of two young men, smiling and alluding happiness, in a simple scene of the pleasure of smoking a cigarette. There were many beautiful and stunning photographs in the show many caused me to smile, this being one of them.

In contrast his photojournalism of the 1950s and 60s, portray people and countries as they recover from the war, rebuilding their lives and cities. The photographs of China and Russia show two countries dominated by Communism and enthusiasm. Bresson carefully captures the detail in humanism, hope, and human triumph.

A print not to be missed is “ Pont de I’ Europe, Paris, France, 1933.”  One of a few prints in the show with an air of surrealism, the scene, once again, is of the every day-- buildings, fences, two people, however, a man seems to be leaping off a floating ladder into a pool of water where his reflection mimics his jumping body.  Is this a lake, a large puddle, an illusion? Perhaps, only Bresson the master magician knows, and it is his secret to be kept. The dramatic photographs of people walking, and living on the streets, is one of the gifts of this master photographer showing the world and its diverse juxtapositions.

            The room dedicated to the United States in the 1960s shows a country divided on race issues. One black and white print shows a young black man being refused entry to a theatre by white men. He leans forward in verbal protest, careful to keep his hand in his pockets as a show of his non-violent actions. The photo is powerful showing a struggle for the African American population since the years of slavery, and abolition in America.  Again, Bresson captures an important historical time, of the civil rights movement and desegregation.

 This was a rich and rare exhibition, showing photographs of close to ninety years of the twentieth century, and the early millennium years. Bresson’s photography educates us about people, history, and our great potential as human beings to survive and shine despite wars, famines, and great political change. This exhibition opens a doorway into history that, only Bresson, could so profoundly capture. I recommend the museums rooftop café, serving gourmet coffee and recreated works of art in fine pastries, as a fitting place to conclude the day in deep conversation of the extraordinary life and work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.


 Works Cited

Cartier-Bresson, Henri. Henri Cartier-Bresson. 2011. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri. “At the liberation of a deportation camp, A Gestapo informer in recognized by a woman she has denounced, Dessau Germany, 1945.” Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri.  “Madrid, Spain, 1932.” Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri. “ Gypsies, Granada, Spain 1933.” Museum of Modern Art, San      Francisco.

Cartier-Bresson, Henri.  “Pont de l’Europe Paris, France, 1938.”  Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Clair, Jean. Europeans: Henri Cartier Bresson. Trans. Anthony Rudolf. 1998. ed. Manchester UK:  Thames and Hudson. Print.

“ Henri Cartier-Bresson.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ( SFMOMA)  web. 9 Feb. 2


                                                                    Hope, Despair and Hipsters


 How did I escape from the house on Ivydene deep in the East-End of London; the East End, which had witnessed so much trauma and devastation before and during WWII, and beyond. The gold the women wore, who shared our house in the slum, were the war medals of a true East Ender. It was truly worth its weight; the precious metal misunderstood by outsiders as a status symbol, as opposed to the commodity to save your family. It was sold to feed your children for a few more days or weeks before eviction took place, or suspending time before the inevitable curse of the workhouse, where the children you loved with a heartache that grew more painful each day would be torn from your side, from the breasts they had fed on, and placed in far way dormitories full of misery and untold grief; like a newborn torn from its mother 24 hours after birth. Here the inmates would sit untangling rope with bleeding hands and bleeding hearts. Sitting back to back with women and men in separate quarters with their heads shaved wearing corse hemp sacks, all dignity beaten from their blood soaked eyes. The eyes they rubbed at night as they laid their heads on the lice ridden straw bales as beds. The eyes that cried unknown tears of the children you had borne under the hearth of your home before the bailiffs came and your husband had his limb severed in the machinery invented in the Industrious Age. Gangrene had set in and his death precipitated your own accident as your hand was sewn into the leather machine along with the bridle made for rich men in their finest who strolled the alleyways of Rippers haunts for the youngest children to unleash their depravity.


Diphtheria ran rife along the tenement rows infested with cockroaches and diseases. Infant mortality was higher than a developing country I the millennium, nine of ten babies died before the age of one. And, yet these youngsters, the hipsters, as referred to by the locals, pour into this once rundown area, now gentrified, in droves. Spilling out onto London Fields for their Friday night barbeques and Saturday’s night soirees.  Do they know that under their seared meat are remnants of bodies from the plague buried deep into the earth from medieval days?


The beggars already begged for death, along with the widows without children. And, orphans clutched their dead parents hands as they were wheeled in barrows to the pyre. Tipped into a pit – another hold- to hide until daybreak came and the cries of wailing mothers carried their babies into the street. The same street that a few hundred years later would witness Hitler’s bombs consecutively dropped one by ones for 57 days and nights thanks to the Luftwaffe. The East End, an already battered community, watched their factories explode like Guy Fawkes night as the German firebombs lit the skies, as if Heaven had opened to the gather the poor and discarded through its the Pearly Gates. All this as Hitler sat with his Alsatians, his prized German Shepherds and his Mistress Eva by his side. 


This is the East End that no one remembers, as the hipsters drink their organic coffee and eat their chocolate croissants; the odd one mistaken for a jihadist near the mosque in Brick Lane and beaten beyond recognition by the neo-Nazi’s of today.

And, I wonder do any of these young men and women, whose Mummy and Daddy buy their million pound condos on the canal, know of the suffering here in the last hundred years, and if they do, do they care?