I am working on putting together a new book. I released two earlier this year, one published by Oxford University Press that is both a history and technical introduction to some different photographic processes, and the other a study of contemporary art photography in Java, co-published by Cornell University and Afterhours Books in Jakarta.
This next book I am working on will be a more comprehensive history of photography from Indonesia. Rather than writing the whole thing, I am writing a few chapters, and then soliciting writers from around the United States, Indonesia, Australia, Europe, and Canada to contribute. So far, this is all coming together quite nicely, but there is still a ways to go.
There are three essays I am writing for the book. One is called “The Invention of Photography, the Dutch, and the East Indies,” which looks at the spread of photography across Europe, and then its use in the Dutch colonial enterprise. The next is “Mid Century European Modernism in the Dutch East Indies,” which looks at a handful of European photographers that photographed in the Indies in the years leading to independence. The last is called “Bandung Today,” and this looks at the contemporary activity promoting and developing photography coming from the Javanese city of Bandung.
I’ve been working hard on the first two essays, and thought I would post a little fragment of one of them here. The second essay on mid European modernism includes a discussion on the photographs Henri Cartier-Bresson made in Bali and Java photographs. Below I am posting a fragment of this draft essay looking at Cartier-Bresson’s pictures in Indonesia. I hope to post more information about this book project before too long.
Legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had a deep connection to and fondness for Indonesia, often overlooked in understanding his greater oeuvre. He was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie in Northern France in 1908, and was drawn to the arts early in life. After some education and experiments in music and painting, eventually he found a voice in photography. He received his first camera in 1929, and throughout the 1930s, Cartier-Bresson became more immersed in the medium. His understanding of photography was heavily influenced by his early education in the arts, as well as by the incredible creative and intellectual discoveries developing in Paris in the early 20th century. Cartier-Bresson was particularly influenced by the Surrealists, a group of artists active in France between the World Wars, and their idea that meaning could be cultivated and discovered spontaneously, even by chance.
In 1933, he began photographing with a Leica 35mm camera, which proved to be a revelatory decision. Armed with this new camera, Cartier-Bresson brought a new intuition to his work, and with it helped to develop an entirely new approach to the medium. In 1947, together with Robert Capa, George Rodger, and David Seymour, Cartier-Bresson helped found Magnum Photo, the most influential photography agency in the world. And then in 1952, he published his most influential work – really a defining moment in both his career and the history of the medium itself – Images a la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment). In this book, Cartier-Bresson fully expressed his philosophy of photography, in which the camera serves as a tool for integrating the inner resources of the photographer with the theater of the world and culture at large.
In 1937, Cartier-Bresson married Ratna Mohini, a Javanese dancer born in Batavia in 1904. While Ratna lived in Paris with him, she undoubtedly helped him develop a greater understanding for and interest in Indonesian culture. Cartier-Bresson was drafted at the outbreak of World War II, and in 1940 was imprisoned by the Germans. His wife Ratna set him a Malaysian dictionary (Bahasa Indonesia, the primary language of Indonesia, was originally derived from Malaysian), so the two were able to communicated without much intervention. This clearly added his understanding of the culture.
Eventually, Cartier-Bresson made his way to the Indies in 1949, and completed two series of photographs. Not only was he captivated by the rich landscapes and cultures of the islands, but also because of his experiences in Europe during the wars, he found resonance with the independence movement developing in the Indies after World War II. His first project in the islands was a study of traditional dance in Bali, photographed in the villages of Sanur and Batubulan. These pictures were originally published in 1954 in his book Les Danses a Bali (The Traditional Dances of Bali). This book has an interesting design and narrative. It includes the famous essay by Antonin Artaud, “Le Théâtre Balinais”, from his seminal work Le Théâtre et son Double, as well as commentary by Beryl de Zoete, Walter Spies’ collaborator on Dance and Drama in Bali. He was particularly fascinated by the trance dances, and made pictures of a Barong dance depicting an incredible frenzy and physicality to the kris dancers in full trance. The sequencing of the pictures in the book give a nuanced arc to his understanding of Balinese culture. It begins with photographs of young Balinese girls performing pendet, a traditional temple dance, and ends with the frenzied trance from calon arong, a dance that depicts a Balinese myth about the battle between good and evil. The final picture of the book shows a sense of order after the trance, depicting the villagers and dancers in a calmer state of prayer.
Cartier-Bresson’s second series photographed in Indonesia depicts the rise of Sukarno and the march towards independence. Cartier-Bresson clearly empathized with the independence movement, and saw Sukarno as the charismatic leader needed to unite Indonesia. Telling, too, are his photographs that show the looting of the governor’s residence in Batavia. The pictures reveal a pride and determinism, a flushing of the oppressor as Indonesians take control of their own country and destiny. In looting the residence, 300 portraits of the Dutch governors were removed, a substantial, symbolic gesture towards freedom.