Mr. Bush, Meet Mr. Cartier-Bresson

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I plan to stay late at work tonight to watch the State of the Union address with my news-obsessed colleagues at Time. Meanwhile I’ve been planning a visit this week to the Cartier-Bresson show at the International Center of Photography a few blocks from my office. And in advance of that, I’ve been paging through a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook, which the ICP show is based on. It’s Cartier-Bresson’s own selection of his early work, pictures he glued into an album in the mid-1940s while he was being held in a German prisoner of war camp.

The connection? Revisiting these great, strange pictures — their greatness inseparable from their strangeness — reminded me of the tricky relationship between art and photojournalism, and then between news pictures and how we feel about the bloody obscenities that we see first thing every morning from Iraq. We connect Cartier-Bresson to photojournalism because he founded the news photo agency Magnum. But he was trained first as a painter. And when he started to take pictures in the early 1930s he wasn’t interested in gathering news. He was a newly hatched surrealist on the hunt for miracles, moments when the real world somehow gave you a fleeting glimpse of the uncanny.

SEVILLE, SPAIN, 1933/Cartier-Bresson H./Magnum Photos

It was his great intuition that the camera, because it was a nearly automatic instrument, was the perfect surrealist device. The surrealists loved anything that seemed to bypass rational thought processes. They loved found objects. They loved stream-of-consciousness “automatic writing”. They thought things like that brought you closer to some hidden fund of life’s wonders. By that definition drawing and painting was a little too painstaking, too thought out. The camera, a thing you just pointed and clicked, was the idiot savant of the art world. They also loved shock juxtapositions. Meret Oppenheim’s fur lined teacup. Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel attached to a stool.

I went on about this once in a Time review of a MOMA show. The point worth making tonight is that we still sometimes see the work of photojournalists through the prism of art, and usually do it uncomfortably, as though we or they or both of us were aestheticizing pain. But maybe we’re focusing too much on the wrong idea of art, the kind that emphasizes lighting and composition or whatever other formal qualities. Cartier-Bresson was on to something when he brought the surrealist intuition into his later work as a photojournalist — namely, that even before it gives you information, a news photograph can inject into your reptile brain an intuition about a world turned upside down.

That’s what happens when you see a picture of two disembodied feet dangling at the bottom of a body bag. Or an armchair in a tree after the flood waters receded in New Orleans. As I write this I’m also watching a segment on the ABC Evening News about a U.S. army unit on patrol in Baghdad. There’s a boy walking past an armless body that’s lying along the road. Before it tells you anything else, anything about security in Baghdad or Sunni-Shi’a tensions, an image like that signals to you that this a world that’s radically out of order, like a bicycle wheel attached to a stool.

It would be an obscenity to call that image art, but it doesn’t hurt to know that it reaches into our understandings along pathways that certain kinds of art also travels. So whether they know it or not — and many of them do — photojournalists and TV camera people working in Iraq today are descendants of both Cartier-Bresson the news photographer and Cartier-Bresson the surrealist. They show us pictures of a place so badly fractured, so unearthly, that we “sense”, even before we “know”, that it will take a super human effort to put it right.

Over to you Mr. President