Front / Recto

  • Title Alicante, Spain
  • Negative Date 1933
  • Print Date 1933–35
  • Medium Gelatin silver print
  • Dimensions Image 9 3/16 × 6 9/16" (23.3 × 16.7 cm)
  • Place Taken Alicante
  • Credit Line Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Thomas Walther
  • MoMA Accession Number 1650.2001
  • Copyright © 2015 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris
  • Description

    Like many other introspective young adults, Henri Cartier-Bresson embraced the exotic and marginal as a form of rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing. “What we were seeking . . . was violent emotion, rupture with the disciplines of everyday life as we knew and barely tolerated it,” recalled André Pieyre de Mandiargues, the photographer’s traveling companion. Our aim was “to find faces, acts, and people who gave . . . the illusion of a dream . . . for example when [we] went to follow the lesson of Aragon in the brothels.”[1] The writers Louis Aragon and André Breton, who also felt compelled to escape the restrictions of society in the 1920s, found release in urban banality and fantasy and in the transgressive freedom of brothels: “In these retreats,” Aragon wrote, “I feel delivered from a world of intolerable convention, and at last thrive in the broad daylight of anarchy.”[2]

    In 1931, Cartier-Bresson acquired a Leica camera, and over the next three years he used it to take a long, hard look at the margins of acceptability in Spain, Italy, and Mexico. In his photographs he often captured a dream state in which unlikely situations, pregnant with meaning, seem normal yet remain unresolved. The odd couple in Alicante, Spain makes a gesture of mesmerizing ambiguity, a feeling that is heightened by the peculiarly poised pose of the figure on the right, evocative of Mannerist portraiture. That the mystery of this vision does not evaporate with the discovery that the subjects are transgendered women—prostitutes dancing and acting for the photographer—testifies to the economy and deftness of Cartier-Bresson’s art.

    Cartier-Bresson’s early work, like many early photographs by André Kertész, Eli Lotar, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, is one of the purest versions of Surrealism achieved through straight photography. The first champion of this kind of modern photograph was the New York gallerist Julien Levy, who showed Cartier-Bresson’s work in the Julien Levy Gallery in 1933 and again in 1935. “Henri was a radical in the darkroom, violating all the sacred rules” espoused by Stieglitz and Strand, Levy recalled, by which he meant the cult of the fine print with rich tonalities. This young artist was shaping a “rude and crude” idea into prints of such novel physical presence that Levy christened the work “Anti-Graphic Photography.”[3]

    This is a rare example of such a photograph, printed and finished by Cartier-Bresson himself, who was outspoken about his distaste for darkroom work (after 1935 he focused exclusively on taking pictures and left the printing to others). The fiber content of the paper reveals it to be a European photographic paper produced in the 1930s; it is a double-weight paper with a smooth surface, easy to handle in the darkroom when wet and resistant to scratching. The paper was scored and then each side of the print was trimmed by hand. (Evidence of dark lines at the trimmed edges are visible, possibly from the black border of the negative’s edge.) A swirling finger smudge in the lower-right corner indexes the moment the artist held the corner down as he pivoted the paper to trim the next edge. He retouched a flaw on the face of each subject with graphite pencil but made no notations or stamps on the verso.

    —Lee Ann Daffner, Maria Morris Hambourg

    [1] André Pieyre de Mandiargues, quoted in Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1987), p. 15.

    [2] Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1926); trans. Frederick Brown in Nightwalker (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1970). Quoted in Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson, p. 15.

    [3] Julien Levy, quoted in Katherine Ware and Peter Barbarie, Dreaming in Black and White: Photography at the Julien Levy Gallery (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002), pp. 86–87.

Back / Verso

  • Mount Type No mount
  • Marks and Inscriptions Signed in pencil on sheet verso, center: H. Cartier-Bresson. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, center: c/o Julien Levy Galleries/602 Madison Ave/New York City/USA. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, bottom right: TW 770721.
  • Provenance The artist, Paris; to Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1933–37 [1]; possibly to Carlton Gallery (Carlton Willers), New York [2]; to Allan Frumkin Gallery Photographs Inc. (Carol Ehlers), Chicago, October 1982 [3]; purchased by Thomas Walther, October 21, 1982 [4]; given to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001.
    [1] Inscription on sheet verso. In October 1933 Julien Levy showed his first exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs in Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and an Exhibition of Anti-Graphic Photographs (September 25–October 16, 1933) and included the artist’s work in the group exhibition Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo (April 23–May 7, 1935). In October 1937 the gallery relocated to 15 East Fifty-seventh Street.
    [2] Carol Ehlers, e-mail to Simon Bieling, April 19, 2005; Carlton Willers, telephone conversation with Bieling, September 2005; Willers, letter to Maria Morris Hambourg, August 23, 2014.
    [3] MacGill/Walther 2000, p. 7; Ehlers, letter to Audrey Sands, October 18, 2013.
    [4] Allan Frumkin Gallery Photographs Inc. invoice, October 21, 1982, annotated with Thomas Walther archival no. TW 821001.


  • Surface Sheen Semireflective
  • Techniques Retouching (additive)
  • PTM
    Detail view of the recto of the artwork made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerates subtle surface details and renders the features of the artwork plainly visible. Department of Conservation, MoMA
  • Micro-raking
    Raking-light close-up image, as shot. Area of detail is 6.7 x 6.7 mm. Department of Conservation, MoMA
    Raking-light close-up image, processed. Processing included removal of color, equalization of the histogram, and sharpening, all designed to enhance visual comparison. Department of Conservation, MoMA

Paper Material

  • Format Metric
  • Weight Double weight
  • Thickness (mm) 0.27
  • UV Fluorescence Recto negative
    Verso negative
  • Fiber Analysis Hardwood bleached sulfite 1%
    Rag 5%
    Bast 1%
    Grass 39%
    Softwood bleached sulfite 56%
  • Material Techniques Developing-out paper
  • XRF

    This work was determined to be a gelatin silver print via X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry.

    The following elements have been positively identified in the work, through XRF readings taken from its recto and verso (or from the mount, where the verso was not accessible):

    • Recto: S, Ca, Cr, Zn, Rb, Sr, Ag, Ba
    • Verso: Al, Si, K, Ca, Fe, Zn, Rb, Sr, Ba

    The graphs below show XRF spectra for three areas on the print: two of the recto—from areas of maximum and minimum image density (Dmax and Dmin)—and one of the verso or mount. The background spectrum represents the contribution of the XRF instrument itself. The first graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the lower energy range (0 to 8 keV). The second graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the higher energy range (8 to 40 keV).

    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Al, Si, S, K, Ca, Ag, Ba
    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Fe, Zn, Rb, Sr, Ag

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