The scene takes place at the foot of the Eiffel Tower; two children are playing; The boy with his long dark coat is riding his small bicycle. The girl, a bit older, behind him is holding a piece of his coat and is pulled while on her wheeled board.
Paris, sometime in the mid fifties in a deserted street. Three children. The youngest, a little girl with fine hair, aged of 4 or so stands in front of the photographer with a grave face. Behind, an older girl seems to hold her back in a protective gesture; Is she talking to the photographer? By her side an older boy, face down, as disheartened, is leaning against a police emergency public telephone.
Two children scenes. One photographer.
And the same wonder: How can the technical formula:” a scene + a light- sensitive surface + some light” create something that hits us so deeply? And suddenly freezes our world? This is what Cartier-Bresson has called so rightly ‘the decisive instant’. A myriad of decisive instants as a matter of fact when you come to think about it: one when the photographer captures the perfect scene and the second and all the following, each time that the photograph seizes somebody new...
“Suspend your trek O time! Suspend your flight O favoring hours and stay! Let us pause, savoring the quick delight That fills the dearest day.”
As says Lamartine in his poem “the Lake”. This suspended instant when all things seem on the edge, as held back for a never-ending second is the Holy Grail. Doisneau once explained : “The marvels of daily life are exciting; No movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street”. The extra-ordinary reality. These black-and-white photographs belong to a movement called “humanist photography”. Very trendy from the forties to the seventies, and back in favour lately, this art invites us to make a foray unto unknown territory: our own heart. Through the discovery of the wonders of ordinary dramas and joys, they spot on Humahood, each uncovering another piece of the great picture, the universal reality of the most intricate profession of all: being a human being. They catch our attention as they seem to reflect our own lives, and pull us back into another place, another time.
It is true that many humanist photographs do exhale a perfume of beauty and poetry, with even a touch of surrealism. Some others are more abrupt, sometimes controversial. But none is an idealized, fairy-tale like vision of our world. Take the time to have a close look again now at the 2 first photographs above: two stories well rooted in the reality of their time yet light years away from each other. The first is a timeless reflection on childhood light-heartedness while in the latter one can discern the untold hardship, the gravity of young lives in a moving ordinary tragedy scene. But both connect us to our inner selves while telling us stories that open wide our imaginary world. A thousand questions rush in as glazing at these scenes: Who are these children? What is their story? Are they related? Are they by themselves? What is in their heart? A thousand stories all of a sudden blossom out about daily dramas, family traditions and new adventures.
But beyond the universal emotional weight they carry, these pictures are perpetual witnesses of the society they were born in and thus question us in our turn on the role we play here and now. They are never superficial nor over-indulgent; they do not advertise, they are no war photos nor propaganda tools and yet they are socially committed art pieces used to highlight a certain reality and defend causes. They do not embellish daily life, characters are often unaware to be taken in picture, with dirty and frenzied faces and yet they do feature beauty. They sometimes depict harrowing scenes and awake pain or guilt, but are frequently brightened by a sparkle of incongruity, the photographer winking back with amusement to Life. In the past, they used to focus on human welfare, values and dignity, nowadays they have been clawed back by non-theistic life-stancegroups. Hmmm.
But whatever the message underlined is, one cannot but feel a genuine and true and somewhat naive desire for honesty, “to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart”, Cartier Bresson stated. A true tenderness toward humanity.
These scenes are eternal and like the most stunning painted or sculpted artworks of the greatest masters they defy Time and remain deeply modern. This reminds me ofBrigitte Bardot, the iconic actress of the Sixties who said once:”A photograph can be an instant of life captured for eternity that will never cease looking back at you.” And sometimes the never-aging self portrait taken on a beautiful and merry and young spring day can stare back at you quite mercilessly. Or makes you smile. That depends certainly on how you evaluate the change that has taken place. These old photographs touch us or make us smile as we are seeing ourselves in the scenes.
This leads us back to the origin of the word itself: It comes from the greek roots φωτός (phōtos), meaning "light" and γραφή (graphé) meaning "representation by means of lines" or "drawing"; To take a photograph thus signifies to draw with light, which summarizes perfectly well the photographic process. But in my opinion, it invites us also to use the light that radiates from the characters themselves and even furthermore to use light to enlighten a certain reality. Light, the essence of humanist photograph?
The Humanist photograph is thus a perfect combination of three essential compounds: a direct road to our own humanity, an ingenious social witness and as a mirror, a reflection of light. So, back to our beginning: why does it touch us so deeply? well, maybe because these photographs remind us to be alive.
Now to conclude I can’t help myself but to add a last word from President Lincoln, especially dedicated to those of you who are ready to join me in the ever-suffering self-picture impaired citizens' world assembly:
“There are no bad pictures; ... that's just how your face looks sometimes.”