Part 7 – The Rule Making Epoch–Siskind to Cartier-Bresson
As I stated in Part 4 of this series, there is substantial overlap between the street photography epochs we describe. Rather than being purely sequential time periods, as the word epoch might suggest, they are instead groups that represent the overall norms that describe the period in which photographers began their work. The Rule Making epoch is no different. In terms of time period, the Rule Making epoch begins with street photographers who took up the camera starting in around 1929, just as the Great Depression began, and ends in the post-World War II mid-1940s.
There were two phenomena that made these a natural demarcation point. First, of course, was the Depression itself, which caused major cultural shifts throughout the globe. The Great War had been over for over a decade, and the first great migration of Americans from the farm to the city had almost concluded. Cities were bustling, as they had been in Europe for years, and the streets were full of dynamism and growth. Secondly, and more close to photographers’ hearts, new photographers entered the medium unchained from the big, slow cameras of the past, led by the Leica I in 1925. By 1936, within ten years of when every photographer in the Rule Making epoch took up the camera, fast, sharp, and lightweight 35mm kit was relatively cheap and widely available. With new freedom came new ways of shooting. Indeed, it was not so much the photographers that defined the epoch as it was the availability of equipment that allowed more mobile and dynamic work.
While the earliest photographers in this group, especially the three we’ll detail here (Aaron Siskind, Helen Levitt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson) overlapped their predecessors from the Transitional Epoch, there was a subtle shift from the experimentation that marked much of the previous group’s work. In short, photographers began to describe Street Photography as a separate discipline and even went so far as to state what does and does not constitute street photography.
Of course, with any group of artists, there was considerable dissention as to exactly what those rules were. However, those who followed no longer took up the camera with a largely blank slate of expectations. Instead, there existed around 100 years of history and some very vocal advocates for certain aspects of composition and content.
In the posts that follow, we will look at some of those rules and very quickly shout them down. As you follow along, I’m confident you will see that even in this age of Rule Making, there was (and is) by no means a consensus of what constitutes true street photography.
Aaron Siskind (USA) – 1903 – 1991
Aaron Siskind is as good a place as any to begin discussing Rule Making, since he was as adept at breaking rules as he was at defining or following them. Born in 1903 in New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents as the fifth of six children, Siskind spent his childhood in NYC, receiving a Bachelor of Social Science degree from the College of the City of New York in 1926. He went on to teach high school in the New York public school system, a career he kept for 21 years. While his first artistic loves were music and poetry, he took up the camera after receiving his first camera in 1929 as a wedding gift. He later stated that he began taking shots on his honeymoon and quickly began to see the possible artistic merits of the device.
In 1932, he joined the New York Film and Photo League, buying a Voigtlander Avus camera, a medium to high quality folding plate camera. His photographic career really began as a documentarian in the Photo League, and from 1936 to 1940, he reorganized and led the League’s Feature Group as they created documentary photo essays of political importance. It was during this period when he produced the bulk of his street work, especially in contributions to the series, the Harlem Document (1932-1940). The work was good, but echoed the documentarian form that was popular at the time, and during the preceding eras. His shots were simple and formal, generally with subjects that dominated the frame. (Click below to view gallery.)
Beginning in the mid-1940s, Siskind veered away from documentary photography, creating increasingly abstract and symbolic images from found objects. In 1950, Siskind produced his “Credo” as a artist’s statement for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Symposium “What is Modern Photography.” Siskind wrote:
“When I make a photograph I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order-(unlike the work of events and actions whose permanent condition is change and disorder).”
With this one sentence, he explains the conundrum of his future work, rejected the relatively ordered shots of a disordered world, for abstract photos of ordinary, true-to-life objects and making them disordered. He was one of the first photographers to combine “straight” (high-truth-value) photography with abstraction. His photos emphasized modernist attention to the flatness of the picture plane, but added in textures, line, and visual repetition.
Per the Aaron Siskind Foundation:
On the invitation of Harry Callahan, Siskind joined the faculty of the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1951, taking over as head of the photography program in 1961, when Callahan left. Siskind and Callahan, famous for their synergy as teachers and photographers, reunited in 1971 when Siskind left the Institute of Design for the Rhode Island School of Design where Callahan then taught. Siskind continued to teach at RISD until his retirement in 1976.”
Siskind is now mostly remembered for his abstract work, of which, frankly, I’m not a fan, but he also stretched the definition of photography, pushing against its foundational roots as hard as he could.
Helen Levitt (USA) – 1913 – 2009
Helen Levitt, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, was one of the most celebrated and least-known photographers of her day, and one of my personal favorites by a landslide. Levitt taught herself photography, and decided early on to make it her profession. She dropped out of high school and began working for a commercial photographer where she could learn her craft.
In 1936, she bought herself a 35mm Leica like the one used by mentor and idol, Cartier-Bresson and began her street work in earnest. She used an angled viewfinder to be able to do her work more discretely, and began her sensitive style that was marked by more candor than the photographer-aware street shots of her predecessors.
In 1938, while teaching art classes to children, she began shooting the children’s chalk drawings and the kids who created them. These shots were published 50 years later as In the Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938-1948. (Click below to view gallery.)
Levitt did enjoy some early successes, in part due to her association with Walker Evans in 1938-39. MOMA included some of her shots in its first photography exhibition in 1939. In 1943, Levitt had her first solo exhibition, “Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children” at MOMA. Her next major exhibition wasn’t until the 1960s, perhaps due to ongoing lack of interest in and support of women’s artistic merits. (Big surprise there, right?) (Click to view color gallery.)
With changing tides, MOMA did hold a second solo exhibition in 1974, this time of color work. Fortunately for those of us who followed her, Levitt kept shooting between exhibitions. (The moral of this story? Keep shooting.) Major retrospectives of her work have been held in San Francisco and MOMA (1991), NYC’s International Center for Photography (1997), Paris (2001), and again in Paris and in Germany in 2008. Levitt was alive to see her work rediscovered.
As Atget Photography.com’s biography of Levitt states:
Levitt’s pictures report no unusual happenings; most of them show the games of children, the errands and conversations of the middle-aged, and the observant waiting of the old. What is remarkable about the photographs is that these immemorially routine acts of life, practiced everywhere and always, are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humor, pathos, and surprise, and also that they are filled with the qualities of art, as though the street were a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators, and dancers.”
In an NPR retrospective on the artist, Melissa Block, who interviewed Levitt wrote:
I asked her why it was hard to talk about her photography.
‘If it were easy to talk about, I’d be a writer,’ she said. ‘Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.’”
Levitt spoke about briefly meeting Cartier-Bresson in 1935 and hearing from him that a photo didn’t have to have social meaning—but instead “could stand up by itself.” This was the first and most important rule of all: Documentary, Art, Defining Moments didn’t matter—the only thing that mattered was the shot, and making it beautiful enough that someone wanted to view it. Her work was poetry—gentle and sensitive, timely and timeless. She didn’t attempt to document social structures or tell a story. Instead, she simply shot what was, and reinforced the candid reality of street photography, without needing to evoke a particular message or uncover the street’s brutal underbelly. Instead, she left a record of what existed, leaving you wondering why life changed so much. Her black and white work was rich in tones; her color work beautifully saturated and well-composed. Her work reminds us that photos are not just about light and shadow. They aren’t simply pictures of people–they are shots of relationships: between people, between the city and its denizens, between people and the environment. Her photos were art; they was poetry.
She didn’t talk about her work much, and too few knew about it while she lived. All Helen Levitt did was shoot. And, in so doing, she defined what street photography is, without saying a word.
Helen Levitt died in her sleep at age 95. Her work has never died.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (France) – 1908 – 2004
The current Wikipedia article on Henri Cartier-Bresson firmly begins with an assertion that he “was a French photographer considered to be the father of photojournalism. He was the [emphasis mine] master of candid photography and an early user of 35 mm film. He helped develop the street photography or life reportage style, and coined the term, The Decisive Moment, that has inspired generations of photographers ever since.”
I hope that by now you realize all of that, except the last sentence, is hyperbolic rubbish. Cartier-Bresson was one of the great influencers of the 20th-century of photography, especially street photography, but was hardly the father of a genre that existed for decades prior to his birth. He was, however, one of the masters of promoting photography, via Magnum Photos, which in part explains his position in photographic lore.
Cartier-Bresson was born in France, the eldest son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose frugality led Cartier-Bresson to joke that they lived like poor people. It did, however, afford him an education in Paris, where he nurtured an early love for the arts and literature. Supported by his parents, he took early shots with a Box Brownie and later with a 3×4-inch view camera, but it was painting that held his attention. Still a teenager, he rebelled against his father’s formal ways and expectation that he’d follow in the family business, and in 1927, took up painting. He completed a two-year program studying under noted Cubist André Llhote, and then went onto Cambridge to further his studies in art and literature. Llhote’s approach to teaching was full of rules, which frustrated Cartier-Bresson, but also gave him a firm footing in form and composition that he would use later. (Click for details on the composition of the shots below.)
After adventures in the Army and a fling with a married woman (with her husband’s consent) in 1931, Cartier-Bresson traveled to Africa on a hunting trip to Côte d’Ivoire. He soon bored of hunting, but did see parallels that he could use in photography.
Upon returning to France that year, he purchased his first 35mm Leica, which gave him the freedom and simplicity that would define his work. As Biography.com states:
For the rest of his life, in fact, Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photography would remain much the same. He made clear his disdain for the augmented image, one that had been enhanced by artificial light, dark room effects, even cropping. The naturalist in Cartier-Bresson believed that all edits should be done when the image was made. His equipment load was often light: a 50mm lens and if he needed it, a longer 90mm lens.”
What is less clear here is one of the primary reasons for this. Cartier-Bresson hated doing darkroom work. In fact, as his editors would complain, he would much rather take shots than produce prints to show his work. Like most photographers, his favorite workflow became his personal mantra. Unlike others, Cartier-Bresson professed his standards to the world.
Cartier-Bresson’s rise was swift. By the mid-1930’s, barely 4 years after starting in earnest, he’d had major exhibits in Mexico, New York, and Madrid. After a break for a brief fling with filmmaking and three years spent as a Prisoner of War under WWII German forces, Cartier-Bresson resumed his photographic career. In 1947, he teamed up with Robert Capa, George Rodger, David ‘Chim’ Seymour, William Vandivert, Rita Vandivert, and Maria Eisner to found Magnum Photos, one of the world’s premier photo agencies. He spent considerable time in India and China, photographing Mahatma Gandhi shortly before his death in 1948.
In 1952, he published his tome, The Decisive Moment. For his book’s preface, he took a quote from Cardinal de Retz, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson applied this to photography, stating, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
This isn’t so much a revelation about technique as an explanation of why photography has been so fascinating over the years. He later stated that photography allowed for only a fraction of a second for composition, which meant that intuition must be one’s director, not thought.
“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or 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. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
The statement has been taken out of context by photographers obsessed with finding “important” or “unusual” moments. Instead, it simply taught what Maria teaches in Part B of this series: there isn’t time for thought, but simply to trust your intuition, await the endorphin rush, and snap the photo. Coincidentally, the photo that many use to illustrate this so-called Defining Moment is a shot that Cartier-Bresson staged. It does him a disservice, and ignores the fact that he was preaching simply that composition is important and speed mandatory.
In 1966, Cartier-Bresson quit Magnum and photography, and focused full-time on drawing and painting, to which he remained dedicated for the rest of his life. He died at home in France just weeks shy of his 96th birthday.
Next: (Part 8: The Rule Making Epoch–Izis Bidermanis to Willy Ronis)
Note to readers: Due to the importance of the 3 photographers in this post, I elected to go into a fairly extensive discussion of each. For the remaining photographers, the biographies will be more concise, meant to introduce the shooter and her/his work. I hope you stay with the series.