Watch the Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary ‘L’amour de court’ (‘Just plain love’, 2001) available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/106009378.
Write up your research on the decisive moment in your learning log taking care to give a proper account of the three differing views offered above, and any further research you’ve undertaken independently. What do you feel personally about the decisive moment as a visual strategy, or just as a way to take pictures? Conclude your post with your own perspective on the debate at this point in time.
First View: Luck | Chance | Receptiveness
‘I slipped the camera through [the railings] but I couldn’t see, that’s why it’s a bit blurry… I couldn’t see a thing through the viewer.’
‘You couldn’t see the man leaping?’
‘That was lucky.’
‘It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters, you have to be receptive, that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance, that’s all. If you want it, you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens.’
Quite incredible, isn’t it, that one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century was down to luck? Luck, chance, ‘hazard’ – whatever it may be, the influence of Cartier-Bresson has been profound, both in photojournalism through the Magnum agency, which he co-founded, and in street photography generally. Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) discovered another of the possibilities of 35mm cameras and high-speed film which he described as the ‘decisive moment’: the ‘moment at which the elements in motion are in balance’ (Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘L’amour tout court’, Dir. Raphaël O’Byrne, 2001).
Today the decisive moment is often criticised for having become something of a stylistic cliché. In the decades after the 1930s, the most creative phase of Cartier-Bresson’s street photography, thousands of photographers learned the techniques of the ‘moment décisif’ – leading, inevitably perhaps, to derivative work. It
The Decisive Moment – Henri Cartier Bresson
A concept made popular by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the decisive moment referred to as a natural and short-lived moment that successfully captures and represents the core or central meaning of the image (SARINANA, 2013).
I am rooting for the decisive moment in this debate with the best of my understanding. For my research on ‘The decisive moment’, I have relied solely on documentaries or books that put forth only Cartier-Bresson’s point of view, in order for me not to get influenced by others’ point of views. Having read all kinds of accusations like Cartier-Bresson used to stage his images etc. I chose not to look at these kinds of opinions and see the decisive moment objectively. Being a master of capturing such moments, Bresson in my opinion did not merely rely on luck and chance but as he said, one has to be receptive to receive and get such opportunities. To me, by receptiveness, he means being prepared by observing, composing and then finally capturing the moment when all the elements that you have carefully observed are in sync, you press the shutter (SARINANA, 2013).
The time between seeing and observing things, composing the shot in your mind, and then capturing it must be carefully thought of, and then to press the shutter at the right time becomes crucial. I think Bresson does not mean here that you stand at a place waiting for the magic to happen. What he means by luck, chance and receptiveness mean being ready for an opportunity. Even though over the years the meaning of the decisive moment has been kind of misunderstood, comparing the kind of photography that Bresson was into with mine, the subject may be totally different but the context remains similar, waiting and looking out for that moment and knowing when to press that shutter is extremely important in my field, so on so many levels, I can absolutely relate to it. In fact, there can be not a more fitting contender for a brand ambassador for the decisive moment as the wildlife photography genre.
When Bresson refers to the two important skills of a competent photographer, knowing and intuiting, he does not mean that they are graced with some special powers to foresee the future but what he simply means is that knowing something means that one must be consciously aware of his surroundings, their awareness must be intentional, their mind at attention and by being receptive he means to be aware of when to click the shutter in order to capture a moment that might be fleeting (SARINANA, 2013).
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 it, it is gone forever.(Bresson, 1957)
Interestingly, more often than not, this is the only way the most iconic of my shots have been made. To help put my point across, I will take an example of an image I made in 2014, that is the perfect example of the decisive moment. As I sat in front of these two sub-adult tigers, I was well aware of the behavior of young tigers on the verge of separating from their mother to lead lives as independent adult tigers. I knew that they often engage in mock fights to demonstrate their power and to brush up their fighting skills in order for a successful transition to being independent. I could see that the light was very low and I corrected the settings on my camera but what I did not know is whether any action was going to take place or not. But in anticipation of it, I was fully ready and mindful of the situation around me. I had another person accompanying me, a great wildlife photography teacher, who was mentoring me on that particular day. As he explained all these things to me, the tigers suddenly moved and broke into a fight that lasted 5-6 seconds at most. While I was able to capture this decisive moment, my mentor lost all the shots as his settings were not the best for shooting in the low light conditions. That rare moment when the tigers fought right out in the open in front of us was gone forever. One of us got it and one didn’t – and it got me a National Geographic award! And this to me is what Bresson means by being receptive and be ready for chance encounters.
Moments like this happen not out of the blue but due to your preparedness and understanding of your subject and field, being at the right place and then of course a lot depends on chance if I will get a good shot or a mind-blowing one. Yet another very recent example of this was experienced by me on a recent trip where again a similar situation emerged. Two sub-adults were keeping an eye on one another. Because I knew something could happen anytime or not, I was prepared for I know nothing in the wild will be repeated and the window of capturing that image would be too short-lived. Amongst 30 safari jeeps, I was the only one who got the entire series of this rare fight – not because I had some kind of a premonition but because I knew the chances of some action happening were strong and therefore I was ready to receive if it did come my way. The lack of readiness and not being attentive enough caused the others to miss this while I got the entire 140 shots. That is what Bresson meant by intuition and receptiveness and it could not hold truer in my field of work, where great moments are solely a matter of chance combined with the correct level of knowledge, preparedness, intuition, and most importantly, mindfulness.
To conclude this debate, Bresson is not talking about a magical moment appearing and one having an intuition to capture it at that very moment but he is talking about a whole lot of factors that come in together briefly to arrange a formation or scene in front of your eyes, ranging from your preparedness, knowledge, the eye to see the composition, to recognise the harmony of a composition and then to perhaps get an opportunity that will sit amongst this perfect scene and capture the fleeting and spontaneous moment, preferably of a movement or action. Though luck and chance cannot be relied upon for making great photographs, they are a boon when they coincide with all the right elements. Being conscious and being aware is of critical importance. The right moment is after all what is behind every great photograph!
“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.”(Cartier – Bresson, 1952)
To sum up briefly, Suler has tried to categorise the decisive moment images to have the following principles:
1. A sophisticated composition in which the visual coalescence of the photographed scene capitalizes on the principles of Gestalt psychology to create a “prägnanz” atmosphere of balance, harmony, simplicity, and unity.
2. A sophisticated background to the subject that interacts both visually and psychologically with the subject in a synergistically meaningful figure/ground relationship.
3. The visual as well as psychological anticipation of completion and closure, which often surfaces as a visual gap, interval, or suspension of some kind.
4. An element of ambiguity, uncertainty, and even contradiction that rouses the viewer’s curiosity about the meaning or outcome of the scene depicted.
5. The capture of a unique, fleeting, and meaningful moment, ideally one involving movement and action.
6. A precisely timed, unrepeatable, one-chance shot.
7. An unobtrusive, candid, photorealistic image of people in real life situations.
8. A dynamic interplay of objective fact with subjective interpretation that arouses meaning and emotion about the human condition.
9. The overarching context of a productive photography session – or “good hour” – that starts with tension, then culminates in a personal and artistic realization that is the DM image.
10. The DM photo as a product of a unique set of technical, cognitive, and emotional skills developed from extensive training and experience in photography, as well as from a psychological knowledge of people.(Suler, 2020).
While this is not to say that all images at all times will have the perfect blend of all these things – that’s highly improbable, but a combination of things that will lead towards as close to a perfect image as possible. I think the decisive moment as Bresson meant it has been misquoted and misrepresented completely.
2nd Outlook – Liz Wells
In ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’ Liz Wells observes that fragmentary moments can be ‘dislocated’ from a greater context that might give them meaning: ‘Increasingly, documentary turned away from attempting to record what would formerly have been seen as its major subjects. The endeavor to make great statements gave way to the recording of little dislocated moments which merely insinuated that some greater meaning might be at stake’ (Wells, 2009, p.73)
The inception of photography resulted in the true capture of things – photography was known for representing reality. Master photographers like Ansel Adams and Walker Evans created iconic images in their own fields. Adams work, even though was mostly landscapes, even those images were special and spectacular – when you talk about decisive moments in something other than humans or animals, I would think of Adams works with his knowledge of light, form, and geometry within the frame made those images speak. Walker Evans, with his beautiful work on contemporary America at the time was focused on capturing people’s expressions – there is something about his work that never leaves your consciousness and is impressed upon one’s mind. These works by great masters focused on documenting the reality on major subjects or themes, like in Evan’s case, the views on America. These works embodied their vision and represented works of a lifetime, collectively presented in iconic books, that are an inspiration to generations to come.
I agree with Wells above that ‘the endeavour to make great statements gave way to the recording of little dislocated moments which merely insinuated that some greater meaning might be at stake.’ This also brings me to the point that the meaning of photography began to change with time. When it was new and fresh, every image made was unique and of pivotal interest to the viewer. With photographers like Bresson, Adams and Evans, photography reached its pinnacle. As it advanced along with the rapid urbanisation of the world, context changed and along with it came derivative work – reproducing imagery of Bresson for example. The solid work ethics that photographers focused on with major themes and subjects that lasted their entire lifetimes changed to instant gratification with the advent of instant imaging and shorter-lived patience perhaps. The whole outlook was redefined to shoot images that were recorded.
Another criticism of the decisive moment is that it somehow just misses the point of our contemporary situation. Reviewing Paul Graham’s photobook The Present, Colin Pantall writes:
‘…what he [Graham] wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.’
In stark contrast to the formal essential traditions of street photography of the 60s and 70s, Paul Graham in his ‘The Present’ investigates the genre by taking 2-3 images just seconds apart, a little different from one another in view and focus. When looked at together they copy our own visual experience of our concentration shifting continually, questioning our very consciousness of the world. He has focused on breaking down the decisive moment (FOTOGRAFIA | Paul Graham: The Present, 2017)
Comparing the two artists above, I lean towards diCorcia as a personal preference or choice compared to the two photographs below by artist Paul Graham who seeks to show the art of nothingness – the banality that has become the now. But the same streets have also created works like diCorcia. For me, Paul Graham’s images do not hold much interest.
Well, I cannot agree with Colin Pantall more after having seen videos of the book ‘The Present’ and trying to understand it with my limited capabilities. I cannot help but compare this work with that of diCorcia’s. I am not a great fan of street photography myself but absolutely loved the work of diCorcia and the moods he captured within his frames. ‘The Present’ by Paul Graham seems to be the polar opposite of diCorcia’s work. I really do not know what he is trying to show via this book. Sure it had an interesting way of presenting images in a diptych manner but that also seemed apparently quite tedious – unless that is his aim to show what photography as an urban experience in a contemporary experience has come to mean – a cliche? A boring non-exciting, monotonous, and dull experience, though I might not go to the extent of publishing a whole book to prove a point. But maybe it means that my understanding and perception have not evolved into the standards of understanding works like this yet.
I would also like to point out towards Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s work as a point to be noted while talking about the decisive moment. His preparedness, adaptation of unique and creative methodologies, and being ready to capture a scene at the right time is what became crucial for the stupendous body of work he created. I guess any image-making that involves candid photography or capturing a perfect movement does rely on chance at least a little bit for that perfect moment as in the case of Lois Greenfield even. Her work has been quite inspirational for me and even though in this case where it is a staged image that she is creating, perfection depends on the perfect synchronization that is achieved after several attempts. In this case, the decisive moment for her is when she is completely satisfied with the coming together of all the elements and movements of her dancers in a perfect frame. Here the decisive moment though can be attempted again and again but like in Corcia’s case, the final image does rely a little at least on the chance of recognizing the perfect moment. And the knowledge and intuition to know when to press the shutter will decide your decisive moment.
Having said that, I do not necessarily agree that the contemporary urban landscape doe not facilitate moments that are decisive. Perhaps it also comes from the fact that I belong to a country where there are vastly different and varied landscapes combined with a culture that has various classes within a society, combined with a rich cultural backdrop that provides anything but a monotonous experience. DiCorcia’s work, for instance, although is simple headshots set in the same contemporary landscape is striking, aesthetically beautiful and I want to look at it again and again but Paul Graham’s work I don’t think I want to relook at even once more. For me, if I am a part of this boring and monotonous landscape already, I want to look at work or see images that please my visual senses and take me away from the dull contemporary living of today. “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
Zouhair Ghazzal agrees that the decisive moment has become more of a cliché than a reality, although he believes it can contain something essential of life. But in a similar way to Pantall’s interpretation of Graham’s work, Ghazzal finds the contemporary urban landscape just ‘too monotonous and dull’ for the decisive moment.
“Yet, practically every serious photographer in the last couple decades had to forego the decisive moment to be able to create and produce—particularly in the U.S. and Germany—in territories where there are less and less decisive moments, and more repetitive urban landscape whose emptiness photographers are framing in sizzling colors rather than in HCB’s austere black-and-white and its shades of gray. “(Ghazzal, 2004)
He further goes on to state that Cartier-Bresson’s photography is at its best with human bodies and gestures that impact or add to the image, making it humorous or interesting, having captured a decisive look or feel, that is probably unlikely to be reproduced in another time and space. He believes that even though its possible to say capture a building at their most decisive moments (even though am not sure what he means by that, maybe a dramatic sunset, a magical light or a lightning strike it or some such dramatic play of elements), decisive moment is best revealed in bodily gestures raising them to an anecdotal level.
” It is as if in the time flux that constitutes the essence of our lives, the decisive moment intervenes at a particular juncture—in that fraction of a second when the anecdotal moment reveals best the flux-as-a-whole. In other words, the decisive moment works best when the sudden cut in time and space that the photograph operates through the release of the shutter is meaningful, as it narrates to us in a single frame the before and after; while other photographs of the decisive type remain anecdotal, with no precise meaning, or with no meaning at all, relying instead on the juxtaposition of bodily gestures with symmetries created by light and space.”(Ghazzal, 2004)
He further states that an image does not narrate but simply frames a scene differentiating between the rest of the unframed world. From this I understand that composing a frame of something that represents something meaningful or interesting amongst the remaining surrounding clutter around it, having no connection whatsoever with it. This pushes the imagination to create a forced narrative when there is none. He goes on to state that therefore bodily gestures are presumably an easier catch for capturing a decisive moment as no two gestures are alike.
I do agree with Ghazzal that decisive moments are more impactful when they involve a living being as movement, action or gesture becomes an integral part of a frame capturing a decisive moment. He goes on to state assumption that failure or weakness of the decisive moment precisely lies in its sole reliance of its gestures.
Having looked at the decisive moment and its interpretation by Cartier-Bresson in great detail, I would like to conclude that the newness and the freshness that the invention of photography brought in its wake can be really hard to find in today’s time. What Bresson’s DM image did is difficult to find in today’s time. Like it’s said there is nothing original left now – every new image is a subtle reproduction of something that already exists. Ghazzal’s take that the decisive moment has become more of a cliche than reality comes from the fact that the world has changed drastically since the time camera was considered a wonder tool and images that are iconic from a different era, possibly might not be looked at with the same eyes in the changed context of the contemporary world.
Also, the ever-changing context of photographic genres has redefined the meaning of photography. Not everyone is out looking for that one decisive moment while documenting. The meaning of photography has changed tremendously along with the urban contemporary landscape that rules out many chances of capturing something that is groundbreaking or life-changing. Even though Ghazzal agrees with the fact that ‘The decisive moment is, therefore, that infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated’ chances of finding that today becomes difficult in the changed scenario of urban life amongst a contemporary backdrop.
To conclude this post I would like to say that I definitely feel that the concept of decisive moments exists though it might not hold true for all genres and all times. In candid photography, people’s and animals both, the decisive moment becomes extremely important. I would say that wildlife photographers like me actually thrive on it as the rarity and chance of such images that do not happen very frequently. To sum up my thoughts:
- The decisive moment is not some dramatic climax but capturing a moment that is spontaneous, fleeting and perhaps never to be repeated again.
- The decisive moment is not based on luck or chance alone but is rather a combination of various factors like preparedness, knowledge, technical skills, subject behaviour knowledge, and then for a chance to capture a striking once in a lifetime moment.
- The decisive moment is definitely one of the most important things in my practice as a wildlife photographer.
- The invention of photography brought in its wake images that were fresh, new and a treat for the eyes – with the changing times and the rapidly changing urban landscape, images that were iconic at one time resulted in mass copying via derivative works, thus ceasing to be as exciting or fresh as before.
- Combined with the right preparation and being in the right place, one can definitely have chances of finding and capturing moments that are decisive.
In a world where nothing is original anymore, choosing a subject that is common and having been photographed before does not matter. What you do with your choice of subject and how and where you take it means everywhere, that’s why photographers like Mona Kuhn, diCorcia, and Lois Greenfield are inspirational photographers from contemporary times. They all have taken the most common subject – human beings and created extraordinary work out of it. The following quote sums up the decisive moment for me quite well – and one that is my mantra for assignment three.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”(Jarmusch, 2004)
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Fig 2 Singh, A. (2014) Muscle Power| National Geographic, 2014. [Photograph] At: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-contest-gallery/muscle-power/ (Accessed 1/08/2020).
Fig 3 Singh, A. (2020) Territorial fight amongst siblings [Photograph] In possession of: the author: Rajasthan, India.
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