Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Decisive Moment that Lead to the Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), is considered a pioneer of photojournalism, though he himself claimed to be a surrealist photographer; it was Robert Capa who suggested to him that if he wanted to get any photography work, then he should call himself a photojournalist.  Cartier-Bresson is revered by many modern street photographers, and rightly so. What many don’t know is that as a young man he spent some time in Africa, where he got into a bit of trouble, made heaps of sketches and then, finally something happened that changed his life and the history of photography too.

Cartier-Bresson was trained as a painter, and that really was his passion and way of recording and interpreting the world around him. In a sense he wouldn’t necessarily describe himself as a “photographer”; he said that he turned to photography simply as a way to ‘testify with a quicker instrument than a brush’. But what led him to this change, to the picking up of a camera?  Well, still in Africa, he saw a photo in a magazine. This photo:

Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika (1930) Martin Munkacsi 

Seeing this extraordinary photo by Hungarian photographer  Martin Munkacsi, Cartier-Bresson understood immediately that, ‘photography could reach eternity through the moment’. He realised the potential of the camera to capture the ‘decisive moment’.

So, that was that. He bought a camera and the rest, as so many say, is history. Using a 35mm camera with a standard lens, allowed Cartier-Bresson to work quickly and unobtrusively.  The title of his book, Images à la Sauvette (changed for US publication to The Decisive Moment) means images on the sly; in other words, candid photography. I am not fond of the word sly, but that's just me. We know what it means really don't we?

Cartier-Bresson insisted on strong composition. He used the viewfinder to frame subjects precisely, preferring to crop the image in the camera (though, contrary to popular belief, he was no purist and cropped images if it suited his needs or what he wanted to say).

He shot in Black and White because he regarded the camera as simply a ‘sketchbook’. It's as simple as this. Perhaps this point may be a contribution to the black and white versus colour debate in street photography? Something to think about at least. For Bresson the choice was not one of aesthetics; it was merely a practical choice that met with his requirements and purpose.

Anyway, I digress. This simple but lovely photograph of a moment of joy being expressed by three young boys was a decisive moment which prompted this great artist to produce not only some of the finest photographs ever made, but also to actually shape the history of photography and especially street photography. 

Or, is this photo really of a very ordinary moment that, with the keen observation of the artist who senses when all the elements just come together to form a harmonious whole, is made decisive because it has been recorded? Makes you think of all those unrecorded moments doesn't it?

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