My family chose Christmas books for me based on my known love of photography. Amongst other wonders, they gave me a book of photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, from which I have selected one:
In 1968 there was a serious student rebellion in France which amongst other things, decorated the city with a variety of philosophical sayings which have never before or since been used as slogans, one of which is depicted here. It means, enjoy yourself without restraint, or, be happy with no shackles, or, let your joy be unfettered. The respectable bourgeois man is shown looking at it with utter incomprehension, perhaps because his life is so much based on deferred gratification, on control of the present for the sake of the future.
The photograph is even-handed, although we may judge that Cartier Bresson sympathised with the writers of the slogan rather than its depicted reader. The authors of the slogan are not present, but simply assert their philosophy by words. The bourgeois man is at least present in person. Maybe the slogan is a little pretentious? Or maybe the bourgeois man is a little ridiculous?
In fact the photograph holds both of these possibilities and something more: a comedy which prefers the cheek of the new to the power of the status quo. The photographer has not staged a critique of the bourgeois man or of the pretentious slogan, but has captured a moment in which the slogan tells the man not to be bound by his habitual restraint. Might he not be a little tempted by the appeal of unconventional freedom?
This balance which nevertheless favours a revolutionary impulse is the product of a disciplined habit of respecting the reality it sees rather than imposing a meaning on it. The conventional man and the unconventional words are equally important to the photographer, whose justice earns the trust of the viewer.
In looking at this image, I am left sympathising with the youthful nonsense of the sloganeers more than the incomprehension of the well-dressed man, while favouring more than either the disciplined humour of the photographer.It is the same humour that says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.