At first glance, this is a classic photo of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The people going about their everyday life, captured in a decisive moment. The city beach in Leningrad, Russia, 1973. Right?
But wait – how come Cartier-Bresson was in the Soviet Union, photographing thonged men, in 1973? How was he even let into the country in the first place, let alone allowed to wander unsupervised to capture anything serendipitous? It was such a closed society; outside visitors – if admitted at all – were tightly controlled in their movements. I couldn’t believe a picture like that was even possible.
Of course, this picture does not make a political point against official authority. No Cartier-Bresson picture really does that, in an obvious way. So I can’t say I was really expecting it to have been censored. But it is ambiguous. It notices and shows something elusive. And even that would have been enough to make it uncomfortable for power that be in the Soviet Union at the time.
The question why a very influential international photographer, with his own mind, was let in, free to roam with camera in hand, is obviously valid. The Soviet Union held an air-tight control on how it was seen from the outside and such an influential image-maker (pun intended) as Cartier-Bresson would’ve been denied a visa if suspected that his work would be ideologically inconvenient.
Well, it was not his first visit to the country. HCB was the first Western photographer to be allowed in the Soviet Union after WWII. That was in ’54, a good 10 years after the war. He gained that trust because, while never a member of the French Communist Party, he was leaning left; he took part in the Resistance, worked briefly for a communist newspaper and even made a documentary on assignment for the party.
Moreover, his main photographic interest lied in ordinary people. Coincidentally, the working class was the subject matter of socialist realism, the officially-sponsored artistic movement in Eastern Europe at that time. In a sense, Cartier-Bresson made the perfect if unwitting channel through which the Soviet Union probably wanted to be popularized in the West.
In fact, during his first trip in 1954, Cartier-Bresson took photos of workers and ordinary people: workers at their own dance party, military officers with their families at the Tretyakovskaya Gallery, people strolling about the Red Square in a sunny day. These pictures, published in Paris Match, had a very positive impact on the Soviet image abroad. They humanized Russia for the Western audience. He did “connect humanity” through them, by bringing together people’s common experience and mutual understanding through a focus on daily life. And at the same time, since the working class was supposed to be the ruling class in the Soviet Union, the photos also fulfilled the Soviet concept of workers: those workers were projected as optimistic and handsome, simple and honest in a noble way.
It is very telling, at the same time, that HCB was assigned an escort/interpreter — and interpreters also had the secondary role of providing gentle but firm movement guidance.
Of course, I am not saying that Cartier-Bresson subscribed to socialist realism (which is different from social realism). Socialist realism sought to present people as inevitably driven by social and political processes. Individuals were important, but their actions and subsequent fate were determined by their social position, not by serendipity. Their value, according to socialist realism, lied in being part of or embodying a large groups of people, like class or nation. Cartier-Bresson’s aesthetics is far from that. Although he focused on ordinary people, he didn’t have them follow any social purpose in his photography. The value of the self for him lied in the unlimited relations of the self and reality. The term he championed, the decisive moment, was another way to say this: it’s about the unexpected beauty of life, while socialist realism is the quite-to-be-expected, inexorable flow of history.
After this first trip to Russia, a second one came 19 years later for Cartier-Bresson. He was looking forward to it with the expectation to see the changes. “There is nothing more revealing than comparing a country with itself by grasping its differences and trying to discover the thread of its continuity,” he said. In fact, there is an important difference between his ’54 and ’72-’73 pictures of the Soviet Union, of which the thonged swimmer above is part. His later trip shows grimmer situations: women waiting at an empty counter in a grocery store, newly erected apartment buildings amid mud and puddles, and people generally looking lonelier and more detached. These pictures point to a continuity that implies an inconvenient conclusion.
I wonder if he was so closely supervised during his second trip and actually what the official reaction to those second series of pictures was. Most Russians today are not familiar with his photos from their own country or even with the fact that he had been there and then made the USSR better known to the rest of the world. Probably this fact was not emphasized in Russia after his second, more ambiguous picture of the country, published in his book About Russia in 1973.