A Fresh Take on the Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson is known (in addition to being the creator of some of the finest photographs ever made) 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.

When 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 and spin). So, I thought, I would have a more critical look at the Decisive Moment concept: where it actually came 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. 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 an 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 the word ‘moment’.  I think actually that this second quote is a fairly good definition of the decisive moment, though I’m still bothered. It seems to me that the origins of the phrase The Decisive Moment in relation to Cartier-Bresson may well have come from the title given to his book Images à la sauvette (translation: Pictures on the sly) when it was released in the United States where it was called The Decisive Moment.

 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: 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. After more research I have found what may be the first ever use of the actual phrase ‘decisive moment’. 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 some of us social documentary and street photographers use as a 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 roundabout 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 sharing with 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 keep and/or show to others, it doesn’t matter. In some way, in some form, I have shared in and preserved a record of a decisive moment.

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 that  we come to our work with, that matters. It is also important that we recognize that all moments are special, that none are ‘ordinary’. That way our life is one long significant – and decisive – moment.

 

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