What is the ‘Decisive Moment”?

The decisive moment has come to be defined as a black and white image, composed meticulously, framed and shot at the precise moment that all of the elements are perfectly aligned with one another (O’Hagan. 2014). The recognition by the photographer of a certain symmetry of the subject, which informs a narrative; a narrative which requires some work on the part of the viewer to imagine the ‘before and after’. The man leaping over the puddle in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 photograph (below) is forever suspended, and ‘because this picture is not part of a sequence, it is the viewer who must imagine what came immediately before and…what happened next’. (Bull. 2010).

Place de l'Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson [1932]

Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. Henri Cartier-Bresson [1932]

Time and patience become watchwords, and indeed I recognise this in some of the photographs that I took whilst living and working in Nepal between 2010 and 2012. The image below is ‘typical’ of Nepal: men sitting on the temple steps, talking with each other. I sat for several minutes watching them deep in conversation, sometimes animated, sometimes in silence and thought.

Bhaktapur. John Callaway [2010]

Similarly in the photograph below, the architecture, the clothing and the woman with the broom are somewhat archetypal of Kathmandu. And yet, with both photographs, the story isn’t clear, and hopefully (maybe), invites the viewer to ask what is going on.

Szarkowski (2003) suggests that the decisive moment has been mis-understood and that the thing which happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one. Perhaps there is no (hidden) story behind the three men in conversation, or the woman and the security guard contemplating the pile of rocks. Maybe they just work visually…

Thinking... John Callaway [2010]

Thinking… John Callaway [2010]

As a counterpoint to this, for Ghazzal (2004), the decisive moment may have become something of a cliché, albeit one that has made ‘an unconscious impact on photojournalism to be dismissed too easily’. He observes that many photographers today have to operate in a repetitive and increasingly empty urban environment, where the opportunity for gesture and the ‘small and unique moment in time’ are much diminished.

Worth bearing in mind as I work towards the completion of my own decisive moment for Assignment 3….


Bibliography & References

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Ghazzal, Z. (2004) Decisive Moments. Available at: http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson (Accessed: 27 December 2016).
O’Hagan, S. (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed | Art and design | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography (Accessed: 27 December 2016).
Szarkowski, J. (2003) ‘Introduction to the photographer’s eye’, in Wells, L. (ed.) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 97–103.

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