In 1932, at the age of 24, Henri Cartier-Bresson obtained a Leica camera. This light handheld camera that would eventually acquire legendary status became the extension of his eyes through which he would observe the world. The Leica freed the photographer from virtually all constraints and it never left him during his subsequent extensive travels across the globe meaning Cartier-Bresson’s previously casual interest in photography developed into a passion in the early 1930s. Thus the “Eye of the Century” began his career and would become one of the most significant photographers pioneering photojournalism and eventually co-founding the influential Magnum Photos agency in 1947 with Robert Capa and David Seymour.
In Cartier-Bresson’s most original early pictures, he reinvents the life of the street into a Surrealist theater making it more surprising, puzzling, and compelling than the ordinary world. “All my training was Surrealist. And I still feel very close to the Surrealist movement,” he stated in the early 1970s. Cartier-Bresson was quite aware of what drapery represented to the Surrealist imagination that considered the veiled as not only erotic, but also as mysterious and possessing a fascinating effect on the viewer. By hiding the object of people’s attention, intrigue is created by intensifying the desire to know and see more. Cartier-Bresson created images to convey the effect of the veiled often in which people are absorbed in unexplained activities that remain open to a variety of interpretations.
In the important image from early in Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre, “Brussels, 1932,” he photographs two spectators watching a scene off-camera that remains invisible to viewers of the photograph itself. The rough cloth intentionally blocks the sight of some unknown spectacle, but one man has found a gap to peek through and remains completely absorbed in the pleasure of voyeuristically looking. The other man cautiously gazes to one side, as if he has been caught in the act perhaps sensing Cartier-Bresson operating undetected with his mobile Leica. This image emphasizes the pleasure of looking and seeing and all that is associated with it: curiosity, indiscretion, perhaps even a bit of regret. Within this image, the act of looking occurs on three levels first with the two men peeping at an unknown event, then the photographer looking at the two men, and finally with the viewer of the photograph looking at what Cartier-Bresson has captured.
The details in the photograph serendipitously unite from the moustache and bowler hat of the cautious man with hands behind his back and folds in his coat, to the two poles vertically punctuating the perspective as it vanishes towards the left, not to mention the canvas itself that is almost translucent in places with mysterious shadows angled upon it. The photograph captures the instance in which chaos becomes order within the frame making it an example of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. The very embodiment of his artistic development, the image contains all the narrative elements and rules of composition that were to define his straight-forward style and mark his place in the development of twentieth century art.