Henri Cartier-Bresson Was a Master Surrealist Street Photographer

Studying the work of Rene Magritte and the surrealists has given me a new-found appreciation for the masterful photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and surrealism

Henri Cartier Bresson on the decisive moment

Learn more: Free Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Street Photography >

Henri Cartier-Bresson first considered labeling himself a surrealist photographer, but was suggested against it by Robert Capa, who co-founded Magnum with him. However, Henri Cartier-Bresson was trained in surrealism:

“Iʼm not interested in documenting. Documenting is extremely dull and journalism…Iʼm a very bad reporter and a photojournalist. Capa told me when I had an exhibition at the museum of Modern Art in ʼ46, he said no, heʼd be very careful. You mustnʼt have a label of a surrealist photographer. All my training was surrealism. I still feel very close to a surrealist but he said if you were labelled as a surrealist photographer you wonʼt go any further you wonʼt have an assignment and youʼre going to be like a hot house plant. Just forget it, do whatever you like but the label should be photojournalist. And Capa was extremely sound so I never mentioned surrealism, thatʼs my private affair. And what I want, what Iʼm looking for is my business. And Iʼm not a reporter. Its accidentally, itʼs on the side” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

1. Eternal life and death (circular composition)

Funeral in Japan by Henri Cartier Bresson. 1965

For example in this photo by Cartier-Bresson, shot at a funeral of a late actor. Look at the circular motion and composition.

The symbolism: life and death is an eternal cycle.

Circular motion outlined:

This is also shot at a funeral, and look at all the women dabbing their eyes with the tissues:

Also see the three dimensionality and depth of their faces, and the direction of their faces and eyes (and ears as orientation of their heads):

René Magritte: Familiar Objects (1928)

I also was shocked to see this painting by Magritte, which bears an eerie similarity:

Rene Magritte Familiar Objects (1928)

Also note the movement and placement and orientation of the faces:

See their faces abstracted as three-dimensional shapes, and look at the direction of their eyes:

Matisse: the dance (1910)

The dance by Matisse

Even see how the composition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with the circular composition mirrors that of Matisse, a painter Cartier-Bresson greatly admires.

The dance by Matisse, circular composition outlined by red arrows
The dance abstract by ERIC KIM

Lesson: Circular composition

The lesson to apply in our street photography: try to place heads in a similar fashion, and have the circular motion, by placing some subjects closer to us, and others further. Also, to note the direction of the faces, to create a more three-dimensional view.

2. Repetition of rectangles, windows, and shapes

Henri Cartier-Bresson 1933
SPAIN. Madrid.

Probably one of my favorite Cartier-Bresson pictures. I love the surreal windows in the background, and the repetition of the rectangular window shapes, and the subjects in the foreground.

Which reminds me a lot of this painting by Magritte:

René Magritte: René Magritte, Golconda, 1953

Magritte, Golconda, 1953

See the repetition of the figures, and the repeating subjects.

3. Backs of head, and sense of scale

Man facing wall, Soviet Union, Henri Cartier Bresson

Similar to Giorgio de Chirico:

Giorgio de Chirico

4. Life and death and children playing

ITALY. Sicily. Palermo. 1971. Henri Cartier Bresson children playing with wheel. And funeral car in top of frame.

The juxtaposition between life and death, and children:

Giorgio de Chirico, also has a similar concept:

5. Objects that look like something else

MEXICO. Mexico City. Prostituées. Calle Cuauhtemoctzin. 1934. Woman looks like a Key. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Making people look like objects, like how Henri Cartier-Bresson made this woman look like a key, coming out of a keyhole.

1966, The Devils Smile by Magritte

Learn more about Henri Cartier-Bresson >

Learn from the master, Henri Cartier-Bresson: