I have always refused to specialise. I've always done many different kinds of things: photos, drawings, sculpture, films, books ... In the end, it is hard to have many different talents, because each one wants to monopolise you ... All you can do is try to alternate between them, following your instincts … I'm not afraid that I might be wasting my energy ... I want to be free.
My images were surreal simply in the sense that my vision brought out the fantastic dimension of reality. My only aim was to express reality, for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself. If reality fails to fill us with wonder, it is because we have fallen into the habit of seeing it as ordinary.
In any case, I always took people by surprise, for they never knew at what exact moment I was going to take the shot ... In addition, given the kind of equipment available at that time, I often needed artificial light: so I would have someone to help me who would be holding a magnesium flare. As a result, no one knew when I was going to press the shutter.
I wanted to track down the fundamental difference between the photograph and the film. Contrary to what one imagined the photograph doesn't express movement; on the contrary, it arrests it. And the more one increases the speed of the shutter the more definitive is the stoppage... It's here that photography pushes us out of the ordinary range of human perception towards the scientific domain. I've often thought that photography was closer to sculpture than to music, because sculpture also arrests movement... On the other hand the cinema is movement itself; no picture subsists all by itself, but as a function of the one just before and the one behind. In this sense the greatest enemy of the real cinema is the ability to make marvelous photographs as, say, the Mexicans do. My own little film is all movement, and in order to underline the sovereignty of movement, I cut out all words, all commentary. A little music to accompany the movement of the animals, that was all. I even went so far as to prevent myself consciously from trying to 'compose' beautiful photographs; I snuffed out the still photographer in myself in remembering that the cinema is movement.
Yes, I only take one or two or three pictures of a subject, unless I get carried away; I find it concentrates one more to shoot less. Of course it's chancy; when you shoot a lot you stand a better chance, but then you are subjecting yourself to the law of accident —if accident has a law. I prefer to try and if necessary fail. When I succeed, however, I am much happier than I would be if I shot a million pictures on the off-chance. I feel that I have really made it myself, that picture, not won it in a lottery.
On the contrary I want my subject to be as fully conscious as possible —fully aware that he is taking part in an artistic event, an act. Do you remember the old cameras that the village photographer used at the turn of the century? Large as an oak tree, with a lens cap the size of a cat's face, and a billowing black hood? All the village came to have marriage and confirmation pictures taken. It was a solemn, almost holy event. You were obliged to sit still; with the old lens cap the exposure was sometimes four seconds. Moreover, you had to hold your breath, sit still, and stare 'at the dicky bird.' The fact that it was ritual did something to the sitter —you can see the souls looking out of their faces more easily than you can in our photographs of today. They were not off guard, but fully cooperative, sharing an act of innocent majesty — 'having a picture took.' - That is what I still try and hunt for.
I came late to photography; until my thirtieth year I knew nothing about it— indeed, I rather despised it. And I never had a camera in my hand. It all came about because I am a noctambulist (je menais une vie noctambule); and the aspects of the capital at night fired and excited me. How on earth, I asked myself, could I capture and fix these powerful impressions —by what medium? I had been haunted for years by these fugitive images. My friend Andre Kertesz broke the spell by lending me a camera; I followed his advice and his example. So was Paris by Night put together. I transformed my hotel room into a laboratory. I bought (a credit) a really good camera —the Bergheil by Voigtlander, 6-5 by 9 cm., with the Heliar f/4.5 lens. For long months I only shot at night. By the way, I have always been faithful to this camera. I have always done my own developing and printing and enlarging. Of all printing papers I love the glossy—it's the only type which tells you straight away that you have to do with a photograph and nothing else. I think you will be able to judge for yourself about my favorite subject-matter, it s self-evident from the work. But I only want to emphasize the extremely practical considerations which provoked me to learn to photograph. On the other hand I would like to add something else: I've always had a horror of specialization in any one medium. That is why I have constantly changed my medium of expression —photo, drawing, cinema, writing, theater decor, sculpture, engraving And I've published about fifteen books, no two of which are alike.
The photograph has a double destiny — It is the daughter of the world of externals, of the living second, and as such will always keep something of the historic or scientific document about it; but it is also the daughter of the rectangle, a child of the beaux-arts, which requires one to fill up the space agreeably or harmoniously with black-and-white spots or colors. In this sense the photograph will always have one foot in the camp of the graphic arts, and will never be able to escape the fact. Indeed in every photo you will find the accent placed either on the side of document or of the graphic arts. It's inescapable. At the beginning, of course, photography began to imitate the various schools of painting but at the time when I started work it had already begun to shake off the shackles of the purely pictorial. In each country we saw a reaction set in with the work of one man — Stieglitz in the U. S. A., Emerson in England, Atget in France. . . . With them the document yielded up its place, like wise the preoccupation with painting ; photography became purely itself, neither less nor more. That is to say that people began to produce images in this medium which could not be produced in any other way whatsoever. As for those who asked (and still ask) in what the photograph differs from every other medium I reply by referring them to the scrap of conversation with Picasso which I have quoted in my book.
One begins to understand that painting is not our means of expression. It is a medium that comes from the past. Now there are new means of expression. There is television. There is the cinema, film. And one begins to understand that it is the photographic image which is the means to expression of our century.
I don’t like snapshots. I like to seize hold of things, and the form is very important for this... . Only through form can the image enter into our memory. It’s like the aerodynamics of a car, don’t you see? For me, form is the only criterion of a good photograph. One doesn’t forget such a photograph and one wants to see it again.
I don't bother myself with psychology. I photograph everything —one doesn't need psychology — When I do a picture of someone I like to render the immobility of the face— of the person thrown back on his own inner solitude. The mobility of the face is always an accident. . . . But I hunt for what is permanent.
For me the photograph must suggest rather than insist or explain; just as a novelist offers his readers only a part of his creation —in leaving certain aspects un expressed —so I think the photograph shouldn't provide superfluous explanations of its subject. I'm thinking for example of certain facades of old houses, pierced with windows which no human presence could ever bring alive. Without knowing more about it I can imagine the sort of existence human beings lead behind walls like these. But better still, I should be able, by photographing it in a certain way to render completely tangible the hidden life behind.
When one sees what you manage to express by a picture one suddenly realizes just how much is no longer a concern of painting Why should an artist obstinately keep on trying to render something which can be rendered so well by the lens? It would be silly, no? Photography has come to its present state in order to free painting from all literature, all anecdote, and even subject matter. . . . The painters should profit by their recovered liberty to do something else.