Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Fresh Take on the Decisive Moment

I've been thinking for a while about Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he is known (among other things) for "inventing" the concept of The Decisive Moment. Finding and 'capturing' the decisive moment is a kind of holy grail for many photographers, especially social documentary and street photographers.

Then this morning I read a friend's post on a famous quote by another photographer that has been misinterpreted or used to justify opposing points of view (well what's odd about that you might ask in our world of cut and paste, of spin, of just generally taking things out of context). So, I thought, this is my chance to have a look at the Decisive Moment concept: where it's come from, what it means and what I think about it all in relation to my own work.

First up, let's look at what Cartier-Bresson actually said about the concept. Well, after a very long and often interesting, surf of the net, I failed to find a single quote from the man himself that includes the words 'decisive moment'. Here, though is one quote that comes close:
“I kept walking the streets, high-strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing, and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera
And then there is this from in interview from 1957:

Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! the Moment! Once you miss the moment it is gone forever. 

No direct mention here of the Decisive Moment, although we see 'moment' in that second quote. I think actually that this second quote is a fairly good definition of the decisive moment, though I'm still bothered.

Here's the thing. We can accept that when we are making a photograph and  it all falls into place that this is the 'decisive' moment, but what is this mysterious 'it'. We can say, lighting, composition, subjects and all the rest, have to be in the right place at that right time, but what really determines exactly when the 'decisive moment' occurs? You see, I have a motto myself: There are no ordinary moments. Meaning, of course that every moment is special, and yes it is I think true to say, every moment is decisive.

And here's a little bit of evidence to suggest that I might just be onto something here. From my research I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty where the actual words 'decisive moment' came from. Jean Francios Paul de Gondi, a cardinal no less of the Roman Catholic church who lived from 1613 to 1679 and came from a rich banking family (didn't they all in those days? Churchman didn't always mean holyman) wrote this:
There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.

In other words, this rich (though he ran up huge debts and died "poor") cardinal who isn't known for much other than writing his memoirs and whose main claim to fame in our time is that he is to be found on Wikipedia, came up with the idea that a lot of us photographers use as some kind of benchmark for our own work.

Of course he is saying that all of life, all that happens has its decisive moment. I, in my not quite infinite wisdom, choose to believe he means by this that no moment is by definition "ordinary". 

So, does this mean we just keep our finger down on the shutter button? Do we 'spray and pray" (what a disgusting image that conjures up; what a sad way to use a camera) and hope we come up with some kind of 'decisive moment'? Hardly. For me it means that every moment has the potential to be special. A street scene of people milling about at a bus stop for example, is always for someone going to contain something special. If I come along with my camera it will be a good scene to photograph or it won't be. It will depend, as we say, on the coming together of elements. And one of those elements is me! Or you; the photographer anyway. 

What I am getting to here in my usual round about way is this: If I am THERE at that bus stop, really there, and I choose to make a photograph, then almost by definition I will come up with a decisive moment. This is so because by being truly present in that space and in that time (ie the moment) I will simply be another element that joins with the flow of all the other elements. I will 'see', I will 'feel' how it is and what is going on. Whether that photograph will be worth processing and showing to others, well that's another question (for another day).

What I try to keep in mind, and our cardinal friend here has helped me remember this, is that even if the photograph I've made isn't one I choose to process and/or show to others, it doesn't matter. In some way, in some form, I have preserved a decisive moment. What I need to bear in mind is, of course, that it may not be a moment that makes a great photograph  it may not be THE one I want to keep and preserve.

It is the coming together and it is the attempt at coming together, that makes what we do worthwhile as documentary or street photographers. It is the intention, the attitude, the frame of mind, we come to our work with, that matters. It is also of great importance that we recognise that all moments are special, that none are "ordinary". That way our life is one long significant - and decisive - moment.

Oh, one last thing. Take a look at this famous image by Cartier-Bresson. It has been cited by many as a classic example of the 'Decisive Moment'. And it is indeed just that; it shows us a very special moment and it has been photographed in a very special way.

Would you like to know how the master made this photograph  Now, it may or may not be true, but I have read in a number of sources that he held his camera above his head so it could see over a fence, through which he himself could not see, and he made the frame.

Chance? Serendipity? Coincidence? No. None of these can explain this extraordinary photograph, this decisive moment. The only explanation is that the photographer was really there, his intuition was working, he was one with his camera, and he just knew, he just felt, when the right moment to press the shutter came. Cartier-Bresson was, in very real terms himself right there in that decisive moment. That is the holy grail I seek: to be in the moment with my subjects. That way, all moments are special, all are decisive

1 comment:

  1. You've combined the cardinal's literal of 'decisive moment' as a act of decision where 'moment' is actually a superlative because decisive is done in an instant anyway, without a second thought it is decisive, a quick decision made in a moment. This cardinal's quick decisions were likely poor judgements by the sound of him and his undoing. I wonder how many others he harmed by his dim-witted quick thinking.
    Too easy to make things fit, I adopted Marcus Aurelius as my Patron Saint of Street Photographers and a short time later Eric Kim declared himself a Stoic ...lol. I wonder what else I can write that Eric might turn into ...certainly dont have to write about fools.

    On the one hand the decisive moment is used to describe a photograph but you are asking about the photographer's condition while inside the decisive moment. It is clear by your own questioning that every moment is not a special moment then, that maybe in the context of being alive but certainly not in the context as street photographer ...unless of course you are happy with your photography but to me someone asking these questions is someone that hopes for more...


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