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Humanist Photography: Understanding Poetic Realism

By Imogen, published on 12/02/2018 Blog > Arts and Hobbies > Photography > All About Humanist Photography

The history of art has seen many movements over the centuries.

From Dadaism to surrealism, photography also has a rich and artistic history.

Landscape photography, fashion photography, portraiture… producing art can be achieved through many methods and photographic techniques.

There is a large number of famous photographers who have moved away from the traditional genres to create a new style of taking pictures called humanist photography.

The photographers who developed this genre of photography sought to capture the emotions of people going about their daily lives.

The essence of humanist photography can be found in the works of many art galleries and exhibitions around the world.

What is Humanist Photography?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Robert Capa are all big names in this movement.

Humanist photography is a French photography movement which is made up of photographers with an interest in photographing people in their daily lives.

Rather than focussing on the use of any particular technical skills or professional photography techniques in capturing these photographs, humanist photography is about the subject, which is always humans.

The photographers of this movement strive to capture people on camera as they go about their daily routines, without any posing or artificial elements such as studio lighting techniques or editing the exposure, lens aperture, or modes as is done in portrait photography.

The objective of many of these photographers is to capture the emotions of the people in the images.

Human interest photography is about spontaneous and natural scenes ¦ source: Pixabay – StockSnap

This movement, which is also referred to as ‘poetic realism’ or ‘human interest’ is mainly associated with France.

For photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Capa, the environment around the subject is of equal importance as the subject themselves.

The environments in which people are found are telling of their lives. For example, it may shed some light on their lifestyle or profession.

This is why many humanist photographs depict people on the street or in cafés, as this is where they act naturally.

There is a vast variety of themes for humanist photographers to explore, but these photographers are always looking to capture what makes us human.

In other words, they’re looking for humanity’s common denominator.

Here are some famous names of the humanist genre:

  • Cartier-Bresson
  • Doisneau
  • Izis
  • Ronis
  • Van der Elsken
  • Lorelle
  • Sougez
  • Ichac
  • René-Jacques

These photographers have worked for newspapers as well as poets such as Pierre Mac Orlan, Blaise Cendrars, Francis Carco and Jacques Prévert.

Humanist photography is also very close to war photography and photojournalism.

Search for photography courses throughout the UK on Superprof:

How Did Humanist Photography Come About?

Now we know more about the ideas behind humanist photography, let’s look into where it all started.

As Henri Cartier-Bresson stated:

The object of the photograph is Man, Man and his short, fragile, threatened life.

These words were uttered in the 1930’s, and in the carnage of the Second World War, they took on a new meaning.

Humanist photography came about shortly after the end of World War II in 1945.

At this time, people were having to deal with real economic hardship, particularly in France, which had to resort to financial aid from the USA to rebuild the country.

At this time, humanist photography focussed on the small pleasures of the time in contrast to the horrors of war.

Humanist photographers also aimed to bring into the public eye and condemn the injustices of this period.

So, why is this genre of photography led by the French?

The high rate of French photographers in the humanist photography movement is down to one world-famous photograph: The Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville by Robert Doisneau.

Doisneau's image is recognised as one of the most famous photographs in the world Robert Doisneau’s famous Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville ¦ source: WordPress – The Genealogy of Style

This photo, which depicts a couple sharing an embrace in the street, was an instant success.

Published in Life magazine in 1950, this photograph remains the symbol of Paris during the post-war era.

This photograph alone helps people to grasp the essence of humanist photography, as it depicts a young French couple in their natural environment.

Doineau’s famous photograph is a large part of the reason that the humanist movement in photography is recognised as being French.

Big Names in Humanist Photography

There are several people who have made their mark on history and the humanist movement. Here are just some of them.

·        Robert Doisneau

Recognised as the founding father of humanist photography, Robert Doisneau (1912 – 1994) is one of the most famous French photographers on the international scene.

His photograph, The Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville, is the symbol of humanist photography.

His black and white photographs often represent school children or couples sharing an intimate moment. His photographs are almost always captured in the street, which makes them an authentic representation of Paris at the time they were taken.

For this reason, street photography as a lot in common with humanist photography.

·        Willy Ronis

Willy Ronis (1910-2009) is another key name in humanist photography, a genre which he regards as ‘the view of the photographer, who loves the human being’.

Ronis was the laureate of the national photography Grand Prix in 1979, and winner of the Nadar prize in 1981. He took part in the 1953 exhibition ‘Five French Photographers’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York alongside Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Izis.

·        Édouard Boubat

 ‘I think that the photographs we like have been made when the photographer has known how to step aside. If there was only one rule for a good photograph, it would be that one.’

Édouard Boubat (1923-1999), professional photographer for the review, Réalités, for several years is also a major figure in humanist photography.

Published by Gamma-Rapho, Boubat’s photographs acts as a portrait of post-war society.

This is what Jacques Prévert had to say:

‘Boubat, a reporter on peace.’

·        Izis

Izis, or Israëlis Bidermanas (1911 – 1980) to use his full name, was a French photographer and photojournalist of Lithuanian origin.

His works were first published in the weekly communist newspaper ‘Regards’.

Following this, he worked for Paris Match, where he published several reports using the humanist photography style.

·        Henri Cartier-Bresson

Born on 22nd August 1908 near Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

Cartier-Bresson was one of the founders of publishing agency Magnum Photos.

His photographs were often used in the press, giving him the status of photojournalist. He enjoyed creating reports in the street by taking photographs without preparing the scene, making his photographs natural and spontaneous.

The Birth of Magnum Photos

Founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour, before the invention of the digital camera, Magnum Photos was the first agency for photojournalism.

Magnum’s photographers spread their work over several geographical areas.

While Cartier-Bresson covered India and the Far East, Capa worked in the USA, Rodger in Africa and Seymour in Europe.

This was a new way of organising photography work.

Photojournalism, travel photography and documentary photography can all be humanist photography too The work of Magnum’s founders would be regarded as travel photography today ¦ source: Pixabay – satschnt

Magnum’s photographs spanned many topics, including family, religion, war, poverty and famine throughout the world.

Just as with humanist photographers, humans were at the heart of Magnum’s interests.

Working as a team gave the photographers an opportunity to choose their subjects and their mode of work – this gave them a rare amount of freedom for the era.

Magnum’s photographs appeared in magazines and newspapers such as Life and Paris Match.

Humanist Photography Today

With offices in Paris, New York, London and Tokyo, Magnum is still growing and now represents around sixty photographers.

Magnum’s photographers work in many sectors including photojournalism, commercial photography, and documentary photography.

Magnum also works with non-governmental organisations, blurring the line between photojournalism and humanist photography even further.

The essence of the agency’s photographs can always be traced back to the observation of people’s day-to-day lives.

Through the joyful moments, war, leisure and work, Magnum’s photographers know how to use humanist photography to create an image of their era – and now they have the luxury of digital photography!

Today, many photographers and photojournalists continue to use humanist photography in their work.

If you’re interested in this particular style of photography, signing up to a photography course, whether it be for beginners or a more advanced photography class, can help you get to grips with the fundamentals of the art of photography.

Photography classes are a perfect option for anyone who wants to learn the basics of photography to improve their photography skills and take their work to the next level through easy-to-understand tutorials.

Learning photography is about much more than learning to use a camera. At a photography school, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or amateur photographer, you will learn how to work with photoshop lightroom and adobe as you explore your passion and creativity with projects on food photography, for example.

With the guidance of a qualified instructor, you’ll learn all about the technical side of photography including, white balance, shutter speed, long exposure, composition and printing, as well as picking up valuable photography tips and tricks to use in your own work.

So, whether you’d like the get into humanist photography, or you’re considering a photography degree, attending photography workshops and classes will give you the photography training you need to develop your own style and flourish as a photographer.

Read about photography today in our article on contemporary photography.

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