THE HUMANIST VISION
March 5 – April 9, 2016
Occupying a highly influential position within the development of photography, humanist imagery emerged in 1930s Europe to create a universal and poetic vision of mankind through its lyrical, realist portraits of common people. The goals of these photographers were to create photographic metaphors where small activities pointed to larger human pleasures and sentiments. With expertly trained eyes, humanist photographers deftly captured activities such as lovers in the street or dark alleyways, children playing with abandonment, and people simply taking the time to reflect on life. The photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Sabine Weiss exemplify the humanist style and are now considered legends of the era; their work revealed a new vision with profound and lasting significance.
In particular, photographers shooting in France played a central and pivotal role in humanist photography, focusing on the subject’s environment as much as on the subject itself. Using small handheld cameras such as the new Leica and Rolleiflex freed photographers from remaining in studios and allowed them to confront their subjects up close and in any location. The streets of Paris, factories and workshops, and bars and restaurants were favorite locales for these intimate visions that celebrate activities that seem ordinary and unremarkable. While stressing the importance of simple representations, the style also placed particular value on their construction, creating a type of “poetic realism.” Humanist photographers often composed their pictures through intentional juxtapositions, a combination of selective framing, and exact timing. Their most enduring photographs achieved a seemingly artless lyricism, suggesting spontaneity and un-choreographed “slices of life.”
The images were often created by freelance photographers and sold to the prominent and widely circulated illustrated magazines of the era. The periodicals promoted photography as a transparent, common language that could be understood by everyone. A watershed in expanding the humanist paradigm was the seminal exhibition, “The Family of Man” first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. It aimed to transmit a message of global solidarity and reached a wide audience of around nine million people when it toured the world. Included in the exhibition were many of the most influential and legendary names in photography including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Sabine Weiss.
Although humanist photography was more of a loose grouping of like-minded individuals than a true movement with an ideology, one individual helped to found the vision: Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1951 he told a journalist that the most important subject for him and his colleagues was “mankind and his life, so brief, so frail, so threatened.” Like many of his contemporaries, the “Eye of the Century” provided popular magazines of the day with images that spoke of a universal human condition and captured something remarkable, emotionally engaging, or surreal in scenes taken from daily life. He instinctively understood how a simple observed action could connect with the viewer and how a small moment could be a metaphor suggesting universal shared experiences. He and his Leica camera would obtain legendary status pioneering photojournalism as he traveled throughout the world documenting mankind and capturing “the decisive moment.”
In France, Robert Doisneau would come to best exemplify French humanism with his images of the nation that were subject to a range of emotions from sensitive to the people’s simple pleasures of life to their anguish. He gave up a career in commercial and fashion photography late in 1940 to devote himself to depicting life in the street and brought a delightful and humane sensibility to his goal of celebrating individuality. He famously roamed the streets of Paris, camera in hand waiting to witness and artfully reveal life’s special moments. A “Frenchness” and a sense of joie de vivre in midcentury France pervade his images in which he demonstrates a unique ability to find and perfectly frame charismatic characters, entertaining episodes, and fleeting moments of humor and affection.
Doisneau’s work would influence many photographers such as Sabine Weiss who he met in Paris in 1952 and would persuade to join the Rapho photo agency developing her permanent focus on humanity. She was a reportage photographer whose work combined everyday poetry with sharp social observation as she photographed individuals going about their daily lives. She captured their emotions and expanded a style that combined spontaneity and informality. In particular throughout Weiss’s career, she was concerned with natural backlighting and the atmospheric effects it can create on her subjects within her images. A gentle and warm acceptance underscores her pictures. For Weiss, it is the light itself that explains her subject. Today she is a living legend at the age of 91 and she continues to exhibit her early images in museum exhibitions worldwide.
Although the humanist movement gradually lost steam from the late 1960s, many of the photographers continued working. Their work remains popular, and though sometimes mistakenly criticized as sentimental or nostalgic, it remains of great historical importance particularly to photojournalism. They picture a world where values such as the primacy of human feelings and a sense of community still commanded widespread respect. Lives were being shaped by the rise of the middle class along with the shared and hopeful belief that the future would be better.