Henri Cartier-Bresson

Batubulan villagers entranced during a Barong performance, Bali, 1949.



Henri Cartier-Bresson 

Primacy of the Other Over Fact


John Bloom


Photography has conventionally been portrayed as a recorder of facts. It has also been treated as a servant of appearance, its images placed in the category of scientific knowledge. But photography is something other than a recorder of facts.

The fact that photographer and camera select segments of a continuous world suggests that the image may be just as much about absence - that not seen in the image - as it is about what is presented. The camera's instant, fully formed image is a facsimile that induces the viewer to forget real time and space and accept, instead, its illusion. Just as the world of spirits is as alive in the culture of Indonesia as the physical landscape, so too is the metaphysical reality that lies behind or adjacent to appearance in the photographic images made there throughout the past 150 years.

The credibility and power of Henri Cartier-Bresson's images are based upon his capacity to hold the rules of reality in suspense and to convince us of their irrelevance in the face of artistic truth. This capacity allows him to photograph ecstatic trance dances in almost the same breath that he reports on the political realities of a burgeoning independent nation. For him, these are extremes of human ritual which, because of their inherent experiential realms, demand different visual representations. The camera is simply the instrument that responds to his sense of the meaning of what occurs before him. Based upon the consistent intensity of his images, meaning is something othet than the fact of appearance.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloupe, France, in 1908. He became seriously involved in photography in 1930, while recuperating from an illness. He had been exposed to Cubist painting and to the work of the Surrealists prior to his photographic career; both art movements, as well as early cinema, were to have a profound effect upon his vision. He was also influenced by the photographers Eugene Atget, Man Ray and Andre Kertesz. In 1932, Cartier-Bresson had his first exhibition of photographs at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City and published his first photo-reportage in the French magazine Vu.

The following year, he began using a 35mm Leica, and with its immediate response to his intuitive vision, he brought a new impulse to photojournalism. Images a la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment), the title of his most influential book, published in 1952, became the term given to his style, which is characterized by dynamic composition and a profound understanding of human psychology.

In 1935, he studied cinematography in New York City with Paul Strand; he returned to France in 1936 to work with filmmaker Jean Renoir. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, he made a documentary film, Victoire de la Vie, on the conditions in Spanish hospitals. Drafted at the outbreak of World War II, he was captured by the Germans in 1940. During his imprisonment, his Indonesian wife, Ratna, sent him a Malaysian dictionary and they were thus able to communicate secretly in her native tongue.

Cartier-Bresson escaped from prison in 1943; and, later that year, he organized photographic units for the French Resistance to document the German Occupation. In 1947, with Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymour, Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative picture agency. Throughout the remainder of his long and prolific career, he has traveled internationally to document important political and cultural events. Much of this work is characterized by a revelatory understanding of the relationship between people and their environment.

Indonesia held a special attraction for Cartier-Bresson since his wife is from Java. This personal link added depth, cogency and cultural sensitivity to an already existing alignment he held with the emerging independence movement headed by Sukarno. He had photographed in India both during its struggles to transcend a colonial past and at the sanctioning of its statehood after World War II. He recognized a similar political situation in Indonesia in 1949 and 1950. As his photographs of political speeches, rallies, departing Dutch soldiers and returning guerrillas show, he had a profound sympathy for the newly forming democratic state.

With the sheer beauty of the Indonesian agricultural landscape as a backdrop, Cartier-Bresson has photographed two quite separate realities in his portrayals of Sukarno's political campaigning and Balinese trance dances. On one level, they are complementary in the sense that the rhythms and changes of politics are a kind of superstructure that has little effect upon popular cultural and spiritual practices.

Without text and an historical perspective of politics in a colonial country, the apparent self-inflicted violence of the trance dance— the expressionistic faces and intense gestures—makes the images of political change seem pale. Yet the faces and gestures mask a rather different reality. What appears to the onlooker as contortion and exhaustion is a ritualistic inner journey toward transcendence. Cartier-Bresson's images suggest this other reality through graphic configuration and the portrayal of support in those helping the dancers.

In the political photographs, Sukarno is seen happily campaigning from his shiny black car and speaking from a makeshift podium. The outward signs indicate an adopted political methodology and negate the kind of communal reality that lives within the popular culture. The servants are happy removing the Dutch artifacts from the palace, and the Dutch soldiers seem more than happy to be leaving. If there is a tension in these pictures of independence, it is that so much of what remains evident is Eurocentric in origin—including the new political order.

Cartier-Bresson himself noted his observations about the conflicting bases of the "new" politics and the existing social order in his notes to his Indonesian photographs: What makes Bali outstanding and unique in this confused world is the harmony between the beliefs of the Balinese, their life and their expression. The cosmic harmony of their religious belief to which every act of their life is related; the social structure of the village which is based on cooperation of all the members instead of competition. A wonderfully frugal life in which the entity of the village is absolutely self-sufficient, in which everybody is an artist in the same time as a man working.

This harmony endured many years of outside influence, Dutch colonization as well as Japanese occupation. Cartier-Bresson's pictures of the trance dancers convey a sense of the enduring tradition that seems outside western experience. His pictures of the independence movement, of the rise of Sukarno, however, are harbingers of the self-inflicted, disharmonizing effects that came as a consequence of entering the post-World War II political-economic world order as a sovereign nation. As an analogy to what Cartier-Bresson accomplished with his camera, Indonesia's decisive moment in history was also an act of forgetting.




Henri Cartier-Bresson

Batubulan villagers in a tance holding sharp kerises to their bodies during a Barong dance, Bali, 1949.



Henri Cartier-Bresson

Wmoan deep in trance during a Barong performance, Batubulan, Bali, 1949.



Henri Cartier-Bresson

President Sukarno in front of a painting portraying young Indonesian freedom fighters, Yogyakarta, 1949.



Henri Cartier-Bresson

President Sukarno's inaugural speech at the Istana Negara, Jakarta, 1949.


Henri Cartier-Bresson

President Sukarno returns to Jakarta, December 1949.



Henri Cartier-Bresson

Dutch soldiers at Tanjung Priok Harbor preparing to return to the Netherlands, January 1950.



Henri Cartier-Bresson

Young Indonesian guerrilla soldiers return from the mountains, near Solo, Java, 1948.



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