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….

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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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Reflections on ‘L’amour de court’

Henri Cartier-Bresson: the name is synonymous with the idea of the ‘decisive moment’ in photography. The point at which all of the elements are perfectly aligned with one another (O’Hagan. 2014). HCB’s 1932 photograph ‘Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint-Lazare’ has long since been emblematic of that idea. In ‘L’amour de court’ (2001), a documentary by Raphaël O’Byrne, HCB talks about how his view of the world underpins his photography, whilst O’Byrne seeks to draw parallels between HCB’s creative processes, and those in other fields of creativity.

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

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

The cornerstone of HCB’s process is the importance of looking, allied to an emphasis on form and geometry (the golden section), and an element of chance. He seems to revel in describing the element of luck involved in taking the above photograph (@ 17m 06s). The implication being that this alone is what counts. ‘When you want it, you won’t get it. Wanting won’t work’ (@ 17m 28s). Perhaps this is humility, perhaps this is disingenuous, or maybe its the sense of humour of a man playing to the camera, but I can’t help but think that it is possible on occasion for the two to operate in tandem, providing that you are willing to wait and be disappointed.

Maybe it is indicative of HCB’s desire to impugn teaching, and to learn by doing, rather than intellectualising the process. Towards the end of the documentary (@ 58m 08s), there is a moment of reflection about the images taken whilst HCB was travelling, which perhaps hints at what he was driving at. “True travelling is not about seeing new things-it is about seeing oneself as temporary against a permanent background, which leads to a deeper vision than leafing through the pages of an art book”. Or as HCB said…“I just lived”. As good a maxim for taking photographs as any… and one that I’ll return to when I’m struggling for inspiration.

Rickshaw, Kathmandu. John Callaway [2011]

Durbar Square, Kathmandu. John Callaway [2011]

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Magnum photos photographer portfolio (2014) Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN#/CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL53ZMYN&POPUPIID=2S5RYDI9CNRQ&POPUPPN=5 (Accessed: 28 December 2016).

O’Byrne, R. (2016) H. Cartier-Bresson: L’amour tout court. Available at: https://vimeo.com/106009378 (Accessed: 28 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).