This Decisive Moment Crack.
Well, it is starting to bug me.
I mean, it’s not that I find it uninteresting, unimportant or anything, more that it just seems to be overly worshipped. Cartier-Bresson’s legacy is here to stay – as the myriad of publications attest – but I am sure that the humble man himself would probably throw a fit regarding the seemingly obsessive idolization of it.
This coming together of elements to create a decisive moment within the frame has its attraction, we cannot deny that, but has it become a cliché? Is it time to realise that there is (and has been since his time) so much more to photography than just a culmination of elements and the story it tells or implies?
Besides, Cartier-Bresson didn’t invent the concept of the decisive moment – it has been around in art for centuries as Bate notes in his Documentary and Storytelling chapter from his 2016 book Photography (pp68-9) with the fascinating concept of the “pregnant moment” or peripetia. And not all of Cartier-Bresson’s photos have that (possibly misunderstood, or misapplied) use of the decisive moment anyway, such as the untitled 1931 shot of a cardigan hanging up on a line (Galassi, 2010, p82). Many of his early shots were decidedly non-decisive, as were many of his later portraits. Clarke (1997, p207) also notes how, “His oeuvre, extensive as it is, escapes definition in terms of any single genre.“.
I also agree with Szarkowski (2007, p11) when he reminds us that the decisive moment “…has been misunderstood; the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story but a picture.”
As Sean O’Hagan mentions, in his Guardian article of 2014, this modern take on the meaning of the decisive moment would be more appropriate to someone like Garry Winogrand:
“The decisive moment has come to mean the perfect second to press the shutter. In this context, it might be better applied to, say, Garry Winogrand or Joel Meyerowitz, photographers who pounded the streets in search of the right convergence of light, action and expression rather than patterns and geometry.”
And apart from the fact that the 1952 English title of “The Decisive Moment” for his French book Images à la Sauvette is misleading: a more accurate translation of ‘Images/Pictures on the Run‘ better captures Cartier-Bresson’s life through and up to that period – there’d been a lot of running from his family, Europe, imprisonment (Papageorge, 2011, pp30-33) – and would have been more appropriate. And who knows, today we might have been speaking about Cartier-Bresson’s “running images”, or “fugitive captures” if not for that translation.
Yeah, probably not.
I’ve never been convinced that there is only one key moment in photography anyway; it sounds absurd to me. There are clearly many moments depending on the subject, the photographer’s aims, equipment, fortune (Cartier-Bresson so famously highlights ‘it’ as always being “luck”), camera vision – photographic eye or whatever you want to call it. Cartier-Bresson had an incredibly intuitive and gloriously perceptive ‘eye’ (as well as mind) and I believe that is why this decisive moment worked so well with his type of photography (not forgetting – as Bate points out (2016, p89) – his art tutor, André Lhote’s artistic conception of instantané and the impact that must have had on Cartier-Bresson too). Possibly the whole sociocultural feeling of America (and Europe) in the 30s and 40s also had that ‘decisive moment’ in terms of optimism and seizing the present and creating your future which clearly exploded, so to speak, post World War Two. Maybe Cartier-Bresson was simply lucky in being around at that crucial time in Western society too, and not just lucky with many of his shots?
That we use his 1932 Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare photograph as the very epitome of his decisive moment is also quite ridiculous seeing as he admitted on more than one occasion that the shot was “luck” and that he couldn’t even see the man leaping “I couldn’t see a thing through the viewfinder.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’amour tout Court). How wonderfully annoying that that lucky photo of a critical moment has been used to describe and exemplify the premeditated decisive moment, I think Henri would have loved the irony here.
Still, I won’t be at all surprised if we find out one day that he was just winding us all up about how “lucky” he’d been (Gare Saint-Lazare) or that he “never took that shot” (the guys in the tree and the crowds waiting to see Gandhi), or he “just held up the camera and shot away” (as in the Cardinal shot); whether this was due to an anti-intellectualization, or dislike of the glorification of his work, or more from a spirit of mischievousness, we’ll probably never know, but I know which one I want to believe…
I’m glad that the concept has moved away from the classic street photographer application and has been applied to a larger area within the multifaceted world of contemporary photography. The decisive moment isn’t just a well composed black-and-white candid street shot (although that still permeates the photographic psyche), it can be many other things in today’s climate too; I’m thinking along the lines of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Head series, which clearly has a decisive moment, or rather a candid fraction of a series of moments, and yet is quite removed from the Cartier-Bresson effect. You wouldn’t get the two photographers mixed up, put it that way; also Jeff Wall’s Passerby has its own decisive moment, but again, it is a very different effect to Cartier-Bresson’s; I believe, a much more foreboding tension as opposed to the more dynamic, graphic tension of Cartier-Bresson (as well as being an example of tableau photography, which – by its staged nature – is inherently a decisive moment).
In fact, if we think of many other contemporary photographers working today, they are a long way from Cartier-Bersson’s decisive moment, and artists such as Esteban Pastorino Diaz working with slit-scan cameras creates decidedly “un-decisive moments” with his ultra long negatives with their many instants and moments merging into a temporal/spatial mosaic, as pointed out by Higgins (2013, p68), and also here.
So, yes, I do believe that there is a decisive moment, but that really does depend on what and why we are photographing something or someone. I prefer to see things as a constant series of moments and moods blending, repeating, creating themselves anew, in constant movement – something that we can indeed freeze, but never really tame, and possibly something we shouldn’t even try to.
Papageorge, T., Core Curriculum – Writings on Photography, Aperture Foundation Inc, Honk Kong, 2011
Galassi, P. and Cartier-Bresson, H. (2010). Henri Cartier-Bresson. New York, N.Y. : Roma: Museum of modern art ; Contrasto.
Cotten, C., The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2004
Higgins, J., Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus – Modern Photography Explained, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013
Clarke, G. (1997). The photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Szarkowski, J. (1966). The photographer’s eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art; distributed by Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.
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