The year is 1947, and spirits are high. It’s been two years since the end of the second World War and New York is in the midst of a revitalization period. The economic boost that came from industrial wartime efforts raised the status of the city to make it one of the centers of the world. A steady influx of European immigrants and refugees were making the journey across the Atlantic in order to try and make a living in a bustling, post-depression America. At the same time, social issues still troubled those who, for many years, had called New York home.
This mixture of new and old residents, each with distinct customs and cultures, ushered in a new age of arts and entertainment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French-born photographer and painter, was at the center of this shift. He, along with four colleagues, founded Magnum Photos. In Bresson’s own words: “Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.”
In this, the second installment of Why This Shot Works, we’ll be taking a look at two photos Bresson captured in 1947. Each communicates a distinct story encompassing both sides of post-war New York.
War has a knack for destroying, or at least separating families. Such was the case prior to this first photo being taken. The gentleman at the focal point of the image is a refugee from an undisclosed European country. After years of separation, he has finally been reunited with his mother. The raw emotion and consolation both the man and his mother are experiencing pierces through the image and is immediately felt. Notice how of all the human elements in the frame, the pair is the most still, which exemplifies just how candid the moment is.
Switch your attention to people on the left and top of the image. They are out of focus, as if quickly looking in all directions, waiting to catch a glimpse of their own loved ones. The man with his left arm extended and slight grin on his face, may be one of the lucky ones to see a familiar face. On the right of the image, the gentleman seems to be glancing at the reunited pair, as if longing to do that same with whoever he’s waiting for.
The depth in this capture is impressive, considering the confined space it was taken in. There are distinct layers here, starting with the boy on the left who seems to be just in front of the man and his mother. From there, lines can be drawn across the frame connecting those who are at the same distance from the camera. This natural progression leads your eye around the whole frantic scene, which further heightens the moment shared between the reunited.
Scenes of happiness, naturally, must be balanced by emotions of the opposite vein. This picture of an unknown man in Downtown Manhattan can be viewed as such a balance. The feelings of pure sadness, melancholy, loneliness or even exhaustion are all applicable to the man as he sits face-to-face with the street cat. Regardless of the exact emotion, he shares the collective stress of a city in the midst of change.
Although the amount of growth experienced was largely unprecedented at the time, the Big Apple was still dealing with internal strife. Residential segregation was ubiquitous. New, rent-stabilized neighborhoods were closed to people of color, and in many cases, unmarried whites as well. Mayor William O’Dwyer was soon to leave the city – conveniently – before a large corruption scandal involving organized crime and the NYPD came to light, sparking outrage from the community. This, along with the notion of people having a love-hate relationship with immigration and all its consequences, can be evoked from the image.
The man is surrounded on all sides by large buildings, which signify the new age of industrial prowess and large-scale city planning. Also, this embodies how humans, both physically and metaphorically, can be made insignificant when matched up against high-rises and the capitalist society they literally stand for. The otherwise empty alleyway the man and cat share, serves no purpose in this moment other than a place to quietly reflect on changing times and what is to come.
AuthorA writer from the Los Angeles area in his 20-somethings. An enjoyer of good conversations, good compositions, and good drinks. Inspired by the the sights, sounds and ideals of a city which embraces cultures of all different mediums.