Why We Are Still Enticed by the French Humanist Photography

November 20, 2018

Lying between the painterly, honorable concerns of realism and the high-minded hopefulness of modernism, French humanist photography focused on the everyday human experience by capturing personal anecdotes and spontaneous moments of daily life. While having the undeniable documentary value of authenticity, these images at the same time express a certain aesthetic of nostalgia. Both real and poetic, they capture personalities and customs, revealing the beauty behind the banal.

The most iconic images from this movement will soon be on view at Peter Fetterman Gallery. Titled Toujours Paris, this touring exhibition will bring together photographs by artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Louis Stettner, Willy Ronis, Marc Riboud, Robert Doisneau, Sabine Weiss and Martine Franck, among others.

Louis Stettner - Rue des Martyrs, Paris, 1951, Willy Ronis - Kinder in Belleville, Paris, 1959
Left: Louis Stettner - Rue des Martyrs, Paris, 1951 / Right: Willy Ronis - Kinder in Belleville, Paris, 1959

The Poetry in the French Humanist Photography

Focused on the everyday human experience by capturing personal anecdotes and spontaneous moments of daily life, French humanist photography produced a new vision of the world which lived between realism and poetry. Seeking to capture the emotions of people going about their daily lives in a poor crumbling city, these photographers made the marvelous moments of everyday life evident and tangible. These photographers pointed their cameras at the simple tropes of Parisian life: the streets, the cafés, love and lovers, children, work and leisure. Emotional and picturesque, these photographs are a testimony to personalities and customs, revealing the beauty behind the banal.

The need to capture the human experience was especially strong after the end of World War II, showing that life goes on as it was. At the same time, photographs created in this period are imbued with a sense of nostalgia, with a post-war kind of yearning for the Paris that was no more. The most prominent figures of the style created the photography agency called Magnum in 1947, with a motto which included being the “concerned photographer.”

Willy Ronis - Vincent Aeromodeliste, Gordes, France, 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson - Le Palais Royale, 1960
Left: Willy Ronis - Vincent Aeromodeliste, Gordes, France, 1952 / Right: Henri Cartier-Bresson - Le Palais Royale, 1960

The Proponents of the Movement

Rethinking the banalest reality, French humanist photographers returned significance to it in the most compelling of ways. The work of the main proponents of the movement fed the newspapers and magazines of the era and are still celebrated and emulated today.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a pioneer of candid and street photography who first emerged during the period between the two world wars, is responsible for introducing the idea of a "decisive moment" into photography. With an uncanny ability to capture life on the run, he helped to define the creative potential of modern photography. One of the pioneers of photojournalism and a champion of humanist photography, Robert Doisneau developed a keen eye for shooting on the streets, recognizing those simple yet meaningful episodes of quotidian Parisian life. Characterized by poetry and gentle humor, his images reveal subtle personal emotions in a public environment. He once said:

The marvels of daily life are so exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.

Best known for his images which capture simple pleasures of everyday life in post-war Paris and Provence, Willy Ronis was the first French staff photographer in the LIFE Magazine. Celebrating the poetry in the everyday, his photographs are often light-hearted, humor-filled, and full of compassion, even as they capture the delight of French joie de vivre. In one interview, the photographer explained:

I have never sought out the extraordinary or the scoop. The beauty of the ordinary was always the source of my greatest emotions.

Dropping his engineering job for photography, Marc Riboud is best known for his iconic work of the Painter on the Eiffel Tower. He also created famous reportages in China and Asia and was a member of the Magnum Photos agency. Unusual in her generation of European photographers and the last living member of the humanist school of photography, Sabine Weiss was celebrated for her boundless energy and her technical ability to cover a multitude of subjects. Throughout her career, she always placed the importance on the sensations themselves, "ones that capture the expression of feelings." A celebrated Belgian photographer and a wife of Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck is celebrated for sublime and emotional images in which she interacted with her subjects, instead of being a passive observer. In the foreword to her book One Day to the Next, she writes:

What I like about photography is precisely the moment that cannot be anticipated, one must constantly be on the alert ready to acclaim the unexpected.

Born in New York but living in Paris since the 1950s, Louis Stettner documented the architectural and cultural evolution of Paris and New York in a career which spans over 60 years. He was drawn to fleeting moments in the life of the cities which could not be recaptured.

Robert Doisneau - La Stricte Intimite, Montrouge, 1945, Sabine Weiss - La 2CV, Paris, 1957
Left: Robert Doisneau - La Stricte Intimite, Montrouge, 1945 / Right: Sabine Weiss - La 2CV, Paris, 1957

French Humanist Photography at Peter Fetterman Gallery

Providing an intimate look into the everyday life, French humanist photography greatly impacted the cinema and literature of the immediate post-war period, with its artistic current traveling through till the late 1960s. Although humanist photography declined in the later decades of the 20th century, the humanist spirit does live on in many contemporary images makers, such as Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore. At a time when humanism is needed more than ever, the movement preserves its strength and dignity in contemporary art.

Providing a compelling insight into the everyday life of post-war France, the works of the French humanist photography from the first half of the 20th century retain a strong seductive attraction even today. Being exhibited internationally in nearly every major institution, they continue to garner praise and provide inspiration to new generations of photographers and collectors alike.

The exhibition Toujours Paris will be on view at Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica until February 23rd, 2019.

Featured images: Martine Franck - Swimming Pool Designed by Alain Capeilleres, Le Brusc, Var, France, 1976; Willy Ronis - Quai de Rhone, Lyon, 1955; Willy Ronis - Café Le Bidule, 1957; Henri Cartier-Bresson - On the Banks of the Marne, 1938; Henri Cartier Bresson - Henri Matisse, 1944. All images courtesy of Peter Fetterman Gallery.

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