The first truly modern European photographer was Eugene Atget; renowned for portraying the city he loved, Paris. Paris became a stage set, waiting for human activity. The popularization of the handheld camera supplied some of the greatest French photographers the tools to follow in Atget’s tradition of embracing a “living city”. With a proclivity towards romance and a fondness for creativity, French “Humanist” photographers captured a landscape of seemingly ordinary moments that helped establish a mantra of recording life as it is lived. Through a narrative change in photography, from documentary photojournalism into a more cultural and natural aesthetic, these photographers ushered in a humanist vision of optimism and redemption for a more humane future following both world wars.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Henri Cartier Bresson, Brassaï, and Edouard Boubat began to shoot in the street, recording their quotidian outings. These photographers would go on to be recognized for their images depicting spontaneity in the city; in parks, cafes, corners, and window-sills, their work portrayed an inspiring world that exposed the poetry in the ordinary. Energetic and empathetic, their work presented the spontaneity of children playing in ruins, patrons engaging in a bar, lovers walking the promenade or the playful smile of a passerby allowing the viewer to revel on the vulnerability of the human condition.
The Humanist movement in photography had begun to take hold before the Second World War and changed the dynamics of what was being pictured. Photographers who previously had been restricted by repressive conditions were now free to record the social and physical effects during and after the war, establishing a value for pictures of everyday life, and more so, allowing the pictures to be viewed as aesthetic and social art. They found that their often-candid photographs depicting common people had the power to encourage a sense of compassion and mutual dignity. All three photographers had known first-hand the horrors of war and were eager to move past its hardship and misery; Humanist photographs acted as visual atonements for the lack of warmth and decency experienced during the course of the war while also celebrating life and augmenting Paris’s rich visual history.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the Humanist movement’s most iconic figures. His approach to photography maintained an appreciation for the human experience, “One must always take photos with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself.” Bresson’s instinctive style and observational understanding had the ability to transmit a universal connection between the work and the viewer. His work of the 1930’s was often viewed as influenced by the surrealists but as the work developed it broke free of any stylistic framework. His candid portrayal of life provided a memorable collection of iconic photography.
Brassaï was more than a photographer; his work in sculpture, drawing, painting and, writing influenced his ability to look and therefore translate ideas into photography. His intimate photographs of Paris at night lets the viewer peer voyeuristically into the lives of the “belles de nuit” and other characters of nocturnal Paris. Brassaï’s images reveal a tenderness for the city and its residents; the city hallowed by its mystical streetlights at night, its residents comforted and unaffected in its interiors. The pictures present a historical account of an unseen Paris.
Edouard Boubat imparted his own poetic vision to the movement. With a start in printmaking as well as photojournalism, Boubat’s photography prioritized the significance of being present. Not only did his work offer an intrinsic desire to appreciate another individual’s perceived joy, it is this attitude which made the photographer’s work so moving: the desire to channel his photographic lens to align with a search for joy and acceptance, thus sharing a moment of bliss. “Some have invented eternity; I am simply a modern inventor. I play with the moment. Whoever finds a treasure, a treasure offered to everyone, becomes its inventor, its discoverer: a light-catcher.” A prime example is his series of work from Lella, which is a modern Pygmalion inspired love story; His photographic muse became his love and ultimately his wife.
These French masters aimed to demonstrate sentiments that characterized not only photographic acuity but a philosophy of humanity’s collective yearning for intimacy, dignity, and empathy. Their work became celebrated and collected for their focus on preserving the sanctity of human life and promoting a gratitude towards the value of our seemingly rudimentary and fleeting experiences.