EP26 – Conversation with Jonathan Teplitzky, director of Railwayman and Churchill

This episode is a conversation between me, Alex Schneideman, and Jonathan Teplitzky, the director of many movies including, Better than Sex, Gettin’ Square, Burning Man, The Railway Man and 2017 released Churchill. His TV work includes Broadchurch, Marcello and the upcoming Shakspeare series, Will. Jonathan has directed actors including Timothy Spall, Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Brian Cox, Olivia Coleman and David Tennant.

We discuss how a love of photography led Teplitzky to make movies. Our discussions are wide ranging and involve quite a lot of swearing.

Jonathan is Australian but has lived on and off in the UK for over thirty years.

You can follow Jonathan on Instagram @jteplitzky

Please let others know about the Photographica Podcast by rating us in iTunes  – and your are welcome to leave a comment too. It really is the best way to get the message out.

If you’d like to discuss printing your work you can get in touch with me at alex@flowphotographic.com or visit the Flow Photographic website.

Thanks for listening,

Alex 

PS Thanks to Chad Lelong for the music!

Check this new episode of Photographica

EP24 – On the Decisive Moment – An audio essay from B+W PHOTOGRAPHY MAG

This episode takes offers a new view of the relevance of the so-called ‘decisive moment’ to contemporary photography. 

Ever since Henri Cartier Bresson coined the term to mean that there is moment when all things come together to capture the essence of a particular situation photographers have been drawn, like moths to a naked bulb, to the beauty of the images that HCB printed as proof of his assertion. 

Documentary (or street) photography has come a long way since then and in this episode I seek to update the ‘master’ famous epithet, drawing us away from that light and on to others that shed more light on the time in which we live.

Please let others know about the Photographica Podcast by rating us in iTunes  – and your are welcome to leave a comment too. It really is the best way to get the message out.

If you’d like to discuss printing your work you can get in touch with me at alex@flowphotographic.com or visit the Flow Photographic website.

Thanks for listening,

Alex 

PS Thanks to Chad Lelong for the music!

 

Check this new episode of Photographica

Photographing Strangers – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 201

The Ethics of Photographing Strangers
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 201, April 2017

Walker Evans hid a camera in the lapels of his coat as he rode the New York City subway between 1936 and 1941. As he travelled he took pictures at an intimate distance of those unsuspecting people he shared a carriage with. These pictures were published under the title ‘Many are Called’ and it has become a classic of urban social documentary. To our (21st century) eyes the pictures of people dressed in hats and the standard elegant formality of another era purveys a soulful, somewhat sad image of another time. But was it justifiable for Evans to travel amongst his fellow men and women stealing souls as he went? Is there a balance between such an invasion and the artistic and documentary values of the project?

Your own answer to these questions will depend on your attitude to what is or what is not in permissible or decent. But this column is not concerned with the ethics pertaining to the exposure of the rich and famous and what protection they are due from the prying eyes of the ‘red tops’. Here we are concerned with the ethics regarding the relationship between the photographer and those innocents caught in the viewfinder of so many photographers working on so many projects.

The law in the UK and US is clear – if you find yourself in a public space you are fair game for any passing photographer. French law (ironically France being the birthplace of so many great photographers of humanity) has decided to stringently restrict the photography of strangers in public spaces. Indeed Brassaï himself would now be a criminal should he still haunt the cafes and alleys of Montmatre.

But despite the enlightened protection that photographers have in the UK an insidious de facto self-regulation is creeping in. For the first time there is a sense of ‘acceptance’ that we photographers should no longer enjoy total impunity. The days of shooting who we like, where we like and when we like are over. And, strangely, it is we who have made that judgement against ourselves. This new tendency to self-restrict started in the 1990’s with the paedophile witch hunts that did so much to damage the trust we placed in the relationships between adults and children. Not long after this came the enhanced threat of terror where anyone looking suspicious or curious was labeled as a potential terrorist. And then came the great ‘phone hacking’ trials of recent years in which the entire nature of privacy has been examined in the light of gross invasions of privacy perpetrated against many people from all walks of life. No wonder there is a new self consciousness amongst photographers.

As a result of all these massive public upheavals we photographers have learned to be ‘discrete’. We are now sensitive about our relationship with the public and we have taken on board many of the criticisms that were justly aimed at guilty practitioners as if we are all somehow complicit in the same crime. We have collectively learned a lesson we should never have been taught yet we are acting as if we bare some responsibility for the actions of others. We don’t. The law is on our side and we should exercise our artistic freedom in accordance with the law and the confidence that, as social documenters and artists we are performing a highly valuable service to our fellow citizens who read our books and visit our exhibitions and to future historians who will find the details and attitudes displayed in our photographs fascinating and valuable.

A photographer who is working to tell a story – or even a photographer in search of a story – is not a criminal yet so many who I speak to tell me about the restrictions they place on their own work. Often I hear that this new, self-hampered approach is not borne out of anything so contentious as a brush with the law or an uncomfortable encounter with a member of the public but is imposed incase such situations might occur. Speaking personally I have resisted becoming attuned to the heightened sensitivity of the public to photographers and often felt my shoulder tapped by the police or a ‘concerned’ person worried that I might be infringing on some belief of our sanctified right to privacy. I go about my work with the confidence that comes from doing ‘work’ and protect myself with charm and a press card. The rights of the serious photographer do not need to be balanced against the rights of the public – it is not a ‘zero sum game’. If the prevailing mood results in less social documenting we all loose out. Nobody wins.

Walt Whitman wrote “I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world.” As photographers we have to ask ourselves if we are merely objectifying the world around us rather than discovering and helping in the manifestation of the world’s ‘latent majesty and beauty’ or in showing its worst excesses and prosecutions. We must not self-police ourselves according to the ignorant prejudice of others rather we must work in accordance with our own ethical code. Whether Walker Evans had a right to photograph his fellow subway commuters depends on how well the glass of his hidden lens reflected a sense of humanity that we can still see ourselves in.

Next issue I will be discussing Sontag’s maxim that ‘you need a camera to show patterns.’

Time and Evolution of Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 200

Time and Evolution of Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 200, March 2017

The photographs I am showing this month are from a growing body of work on the way we interact with culture. I think these images are pertinent to the article because they show people engaging with artworks and monuments that span time. It is the exchange of energy here that excites me – how can the work of a human hand millennia in the past still speak so clearly to people of today?

Have you ever wondered about strange anomalies of time? I was born 24 years after the end of the second world war and a mere 50 years after the (official) end of the First World War. The distance between the end of World War II and my birth is the equivalent to the time between 1991 and now. To me this seems a conceptually much shorter space of time than the distance between World War II and man landing on the Moon.

If you look at the photographs of Nan Goldin, in particular Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC (1991) you will see a picture that features the faces and attitudes of people you might know and see now. The marginal visible details may be a little dated but, essentially, the vernacular of this image speaks of the modern era. You may feel a slight sense of nostalgia but one feels that the picture more or less represents the time we live in.

Now go to Google and type “photographs in 1945”. The top search return is ‘Berlin pictures show the red Army rampaging through German capital’. This is a fascinating juxtaposition of images taken in 1945 set against pictures taken today in exactly the same locations showing starkly contrasting scenes; the one side is war and mayhem , the other shows contemporary, mundane modernity. The contrast between these pictures underlines the juddering temporal contradictions only photography can provide.

Look at any of the photographs from 1945 listed on Google and it feels like looking into another universe. It is not just that the pictures are black and white and grainy – it is as if there was an entirely different attitude at play in the capture of them. For example look at the famous Eisenstaedt shot of the sailor ’embracing’ a nurse. Examine, not the couple, but all that is going on around them. The people at the edge of the frame are dressed in either the military uniform of the era or ‘civvies’ each manifesting the uniformity of style that we associate with the age. There seems, to our 21st century eyes, an ‘unknowingness’ in the relationship between the photograph and the people featured in it. The relationship of this photograph to that which it depicts has a perceptible simplicity – a sense that the condition of ‘the photograph’ was still what it had been since 1826 when the oldest known camera photographic print, Niepcé’s ‘the View from the Window at Le Gras’ was taken. That is to say that each photograph is nothing more or less than the simple record of an event.

The existential conditions of a photograph in the pre-digital age allowed it to be seen as a statement of fact, or, evidence of a truth. This ‘relationship’ with photography, did not seek meaning beyond the borders. Perhaps another way of looking at this is to imagine holding a print in your hands. To a pre-modernist the total value of the image is found within the borders and in the scene or events shown. There is also an acceptance of the truth of the image. By contrast a post-modernist will hold that same print and will wonder at what happened beyond the frame – a necessary response in order to make full, contextual sense of the scene as depicted in the ‘live image area’. This more deconstructive approach might be called the ‘evolution of photographic consciousness’. Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, even Warhol, have all played very important roles as commenters on the photographic image leading to to the more ‘granular’ way in which we now read photographic imagery.

Because lens based photography was introduced to us by wealthy white men in Western Europe the photograph automatically had the weight of truth and reliability about it. Well-off men gave the world a reflection of itself and the world accepted this new mechanical vision as the truth. Where all other representations of life were made by the interpretive human hand and eye here was a device that couldn’t but tell the truth. Since the explosion of digital photography and the ensuing democracy of camera-phones we have unconsciously adjusted our relationship with the photographic image. We do not take for granted that it is immutably honest. Photography is now so much part of us and so it reflects the way we relate to the world. We tacitly understand that the sense of our ability to truthfully understand the world is just as unreliable as that of a photographic image purports to show.

We know that ‘truth’ cannot be taken for granted. This is a great change from our relationship in 1945 with the medium. And this is not because photography has been shown to lie (although it has) but because we don’t need to trust in our own judgement as we used to. We are more comfortable in the knowledge that we cannot know what is empirically true and apply this new understanding, tacitly, to photography.

It is as if the photograph is now a contingent thing existing and serving only as a clue to another less settled truth. To lament the evolution of photographic consciousness is simply irrelevant. Photography and humanity are enjoying a symbiotic development – the one informs the other – indeed the one must live for the other. Photography is adapting to the most fundamental areas of human experience. Photography is now in the neurones and in the interstices of our brains. The photographic image is now our true sixth sense.

When I look at Nan Goldin’s 1991 picture of two tired people in the back of a taxi I’m aware of the different status of the photographic image only 25 years ago. It was the beginning of a transitional phase for photography; from artefact to ‘universal clue’. Twenty five years ago the photograph was a fact – an avatar for a reality otherwise unknowable. Today the photographic image is so intrinsically part of us that it’s implicit truth is as mutable as the reliability of our own subjective view of the world. There is one aspect, however, that time cannot change; as we gaze into the eyes of people staring out at us who are now long dead, the photograph provides an instant connection that brings the past and the future together – a photograph of the past is a photograph of the future, is a photograph of the present.

Next month I will be looking at the pros and cons of being an invisible collector of souls or the work of the unseen documentary photographer and the ethical questions this kind of photography poses.

On Street Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 199

On Street Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 199, February 2017

We simply must talk about street photography. This subject has been bothering me for a long time. It has taken me a while to figure why but I think am now approaching a conclusion: street photography as concept and genre should cease to exist – from this day forward the concept of street photography ought to be consigned to the footnotes of Wikipedia.

I’ll put this antipathy to a popular form of photography in context; first I should explain what I mean by ‘street photography’. This genre is defined by location – the street – and its haphazard nature. One could argue that the nature of street photography is simple and easy to define because its only concern is the interaction between a photographer and the people and events found in the urban environment. You could also say that street photographs are characterised by chance and the depiction of the interplay between humanity and the built environment. This form of photography is attractive, perhaps in concept, but not always worthy of the attention it receives in practice and I hope I can prove to you why we need to move beyond the empty concept that is street photography.

Now, here’s a bit of a non-sequitur but please follow me… the greatest English engraver of the 19th century was Samuel Palmer (often cited by British documentary photographers as a key influence). His Blake-inspired engravings established all the key objectives of street photography decades before photography. There may even be an argument to make that Samuel Palmer was the father of the documentary movement but that’s for another time. Although his work was decidedly bucolic his focus was ordinary working people in their natural habitat. He would show his very ‘human’ subjects in a dynamically depicted environment. Street photography owes a debt to him because his intricate engravings elevated the mundane – the everyday occurrences that the art (of the time) was not concerned with. Palmer died in 1881 as photography was making the recording of everyday life more accessible.

A mere 16 years after Palmer’s death Eugene Atget would start his ‘Old Paris’ series of street inspired photography which he would pursue for the next 30 years until his death in 1927. Atget wanted to capture all of Paris life before it gave way to the onslaught of modernity. Contemporary artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Man Ray where all drawn to Atget’s photographs of Paris life because they detected a surrealism in the imagery which reflected their own artistic concerns at that time. Unfortunately for Atget he was not to live long enough to see his work’s success. However, because of the work of this one man and the august crowd it attracted, an entire genre was born; street photography. What endures of Atget’s work is his dedication to document. That his images engaged his viewers and still do to this day is testament to the seriousness of purpose that underlined they’re making. Atget did not consider himself an artist rather a working photographer in the act of documentation. His important depictions of everyday people and life were to inspire generations of great photography.

So let’s name some of the great photographers known for ‘street photography’ who came after Atget. There are too many to list here comprehensively but here are a few; Walker Evans, Berenice Abbot, Cartier Bresson, Gary Winogrand, Harry Gruyeart, Diane Arbus, Alex Webb, Elliot Erwitt and Robert Frank to tag a random few. I pluck these names out of the air and no doubt you too could add many to them. I see no connection in the work of these disciples of Atget to the concept we now understand as street photography. All of these practitioners are serious artists, journalists and social documenters. Their approach is, respectively; particular, questing, intellectual, deep and deeply felt. Their work may contain some of the tropes of what we have come to expect from street photography (such as extraordinary juxtapositions between people and street typography, trompe-l’œil effects and animal/human interactions to name just a few) but these ‘visual gags’ are the by-catch of serious work.

In our age of super-shallow concept-aquisition – where cultural and historical memes are exploited and devoured by a restless, tech obsessed generation (vis Lomography for its commercialisation of the effects of the application of poor optics to film) we extract the visual ‘hooks’ from these great works of documentary and exploit them to the point that they become anti-iconic graphics of which the best that can be said is “cool”. And “cool” is to photography what salt is to slugs.

The current ubiquity of street photography and its acceptance as a valuable artistic exercise speaks so clearly of the ease with which it is partaken and the lack of commitment it requires. After all most of us live in a town or city. We can easily take a couple of hours to shoot the world around us. I have to admit it is an enjoyable way to spend time. Street photography has become a gentle pastime that can be successful by its own standards without delving beneath the surface of things. When street photography goes deeper it stops being street photography and becomes its more noble cousin, ‘documentary photography’.

I have not mentioned the names of any photographers whose work I think epitomise the hollow world of street photography because I only ever wish to write about the things I like. I reserve my ire for the concepts and attitudes I am uncomfortable with. I believe ‘street photography’ is a dead term describing an obsolete practice. In this way it reminds me of Don Quixote running his sword at windmills – a difficult and fruitless occupation.

We each have in us an ability to connect with the side of the world we are presented with in the same way that Palmer and Atget did. As artists and documenters we should attempt to go deeper and dare ourselves to commit to themes, subjects and concepts. We may fail, we may find ourselves inadequate to the task but just trying to delve further into the mire of humanity gives us the only chance of unearthing the odd, unexpected and precious gem. The street is not enough on its own – humanity is the focus and when the street comes first something is lost. As Oscar Wilde said

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

EP24 – PHOTOMUSE 5 – Trump, Brexit and Money for Art, Cambrian Explosion, The Value of Joy and a New Way to Exhibit

In this new Photomuse I walk down Portobello ruminating on the issues of the day; I talk about

  • The unsettling effect of Trump
  • The risk to the area world in Britain’s exit from Europe
  • The Cambrian explosion of photographic practise
  • Against pigeonholing
  • The importance of joy to the creation of art
  • A new way to exhibit photography designed to affect the viewer viscerally

Please get in touch with alex at alex@flowphotographic.com or @schneideman331 on twitter.

Please forgive occasionally poor delivery – I’ve got a lot on my mind…

Thanks for listening…

Check this new episode of Photographica

The Final Act of Photography – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 198

The Final Act of Photography
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 198, January 2017

The privileged son of a French industrialist once said that “the final act of photography is the print”. Henri Cartier Bresson was under no illusion as to the rightful place of a photographic work in the artistic canon. As an artist who came to photography via painting and surrealism Cartier Bresson’s instincts would have been towards the final manifestation of art as a physical manifestation rather than confined to the pages of academic books.

That the rightful place of photography is on paper is often blindly accepted by the majority and will not surprise many but the adage regarding the final resting place of an image as being properly physical is increasingly questionable at a time when many more images are consumed on screens than any other way. Yet there is something about HCB’s declaration that seems to resonate. Perhaps this is because the idea of there being ‘a final act’ to the photographic process implies a sort of finality in the development of the image as concept and form. That there is a ‘final act’ at all means that the photograph has been rendered through the faculties of the photographer’s mind and experience and has been born and presented as a fixed point ready for the view of others and the latent power that comes with that.

Every single image posted on Instagram or Facebook causes a ripple – a wave that might be imperceptible; diminishing as quickly as it forms. Or another picture will gather momentum as it is passed from person to person, from device to device. Often these photographs are ephemeral – easily swept away by the next image. There is now an easy relationship with the fast decay of an image in so far as these photographs are ‘thumbed-through’ on their way down the screen of a phone or ipad. It is possible that we all share a sense that something is missing in the swipe-to-swipe evaporation of image after image. Perhaps way of engaging is disproportionately degrading to the power of imagery. Should the grace period of a picture be measured by the speed of a thumb?

For some reason magazines are not dying out. The long predicted demise of physical print, which is costly and static (when compared to a screen’s innate transient cheapness) has not happened. On the contrary there is a burgeoning selection of ultra high quality titles (including this one) that make a profit from premium priced magazines. These publications often take great care with picture selections, layout and print quality. They are constructed with sweat, love and risk and consumed by an appreciative readers who sense that by buying the publication they are, in some meaningful way, contributing to the life of the magazine and art.

One of the allures of a photograph printed on paper is that it is incontrovertible. It cannot be altered. It is both statement and fact to be looked at today, studied tomorrow and lived with for as long as you want to have it around. The same cannot be said of screen images. Different monitors and screen technology, not to mention colour balances and varying brightness mean that a photo viewed on a device is a conditional thing. For the purposes of enjoying and examining a photograph a print is more useable because paper is reflective – incidental light bounces off it at easily controllable intensity whereas a screen-viewed image is aggressively back lit – admittedly satisfying for contrast but tiring for extended examination.

A photographic print made well in any of the best methods can be printed small or large as befits the subject whilst a screen dictates the dimensions the image can be viewed at. A print can be hung on the wall and examined as one passes by every single day. For many photographers the act of printing out pictures and sticking them up in constant view is a way of getting know your own work intimately well.

And perhaps the most marked difference is demonstrated by the form of the book. There can be no more satisfying photographic experience than turning the pages on a series of images bound into a single photo book and, in particular, books which have been printed meticulously by expert printers whose knowledge of paper and ink can make photographs resonate on every page.

A photograph needs to be fixed in the physical world to allow for the enduring lover’s gaze. A screen-lit image seems brittle and transient by comparison. To commit an image to paper is to honour poetry and the time-resisting dynamics of art. The final act of photography is, indeed, a print.

Next month – what is the point of street photography?

 

Portraits from the March on Downing Street

On the evening of 30th of January I went to the march on Downing Street to protest Trump’s racist travel ban and Theresa May’s desperation to become his best friend.

Here are some portraits from the evening. The only way to describe the march was gentle and bittersweet. Every part of society was there enjoying being together and scared of the future – bittersweet.

Hope you like them,

Alex

 

NEW MINI PROJECT TO USHER IN A NEW ERA

Here’s a little series of 6 images that I shot entirely in the grip of a combination of relief that 2016 was over and dread of what is to come…

The series is called ‘The News’ and it features six images made on Polaroid of six different news stories showing on the screen of my laptop. The shots were made in Kensal Green Cemetery at dusk on 2nd January.

The links to the stories are at the bottom of this page.

Enjoy…

screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-10-15-10

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/31/europe/russia-putin-trump-obama-greetings/index.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38487509

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/01/tim-farron-theresa-may-new-year-brexit-pledge

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/01/us/politics/with-new-congress-poised-to-convene-obamas-policies-are-in-peril.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/fascism-spreading-across-world-bmg-poll-trump-brexit-le-pen-wilders-petry-a7492981.html

https://news.vice.com/story/venezuelas-continuing-currency-crisis-pushes-country-to-brink-of-collapse?utm_source=vicenewstwitter

On the Decisive Moment – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE

On the Decisive Moment
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 197, Winter 2016

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The dynamic of Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographs who’s innate poise and composition conferred an almost ethereally perfect quality was called the ‘Decisive Moment’ after Cardinal Retz was quoted in the preface to Cartier Bresson’s seminal and first book in 1952 – “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”.

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However, the power of this phrase may have been amplified inaccurately by a slight miss translation of this epoch making book which was first titled in French as ‘Images a la Sauvette’ which maybe better read as ‘images on the sly’ or ‘images on the run’. I believe these alternative translations are closer to the intentions of the original French publishers than its English translation implies. Nevertheless Cartier Bresson was convinced that there is a moment that captures the essence of a situation better than any other where dynamics, emotion and composition can be seen to be in perfect balance in a single image. The coincidence of emotional and compositional quality is what Cartier Bresson meant by the ‘Decisive Moment’.

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The French philosopher and writer, Roland Barthes, defined a point in an image around which the emotional sense, dynamic and composition hangs as the ‘punctum’ or ‘point’ if you prefer. It should be noted that only the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ refers to the value of a picture. The ‘punctum’ is a descriptive term aiding an ontological discussion about a photograph. Either way both Cartier Bresson and Roland Barthes have identified an empirical way to evaluate an image. It is very interesting that both these concepts became popular at around about the same time, mid 20th century, when photography was looking for a home in the museums and galleries of the world rather than its natural environment of magazines and newspapers.

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The ‘Decisive Moment’  – it’s tenets of timing, spontaneity and geometry has both inspired and crushed photographers ever since ‘Images a la Sauvette’ was published. So many have been inspired to become photographers by the work of Cartier Bresson and his adherence to the ‘Decisive Moment’. But anyone standing at the precipice of a lifetime to be spent photographing, ready to dive in because he or she has fallen in love with the ‘Decisive Moment’ is about to jump with a large and unwieldy weight attached to their legs.

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The presence of this analogical weight means that, most likely, they will tumble without grace or form into the depths instead of beautifully gliding swallow like into the limpid blue as they would have dreamed. This is because the notional weight of the ‘Decisive Moment’ will mean a fruitless struggle with a concept that impedes the best motives of photography.

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Compare the work of, say, Gary Winogrand with that of Cartier Bresson. Unquestionably the style of both relies on the ‘Decisive Moment’. Cartier Bresson’s images are more conventionally beautiful and frequently show his geometric signature whereas Winogrand’s images rely on tensions and dynamics of his very human subjects. But a more important difference is their respective intentions; Cartier Bresson’s version of the ‘Decisive Moment’ is architectural, graphically dynamic and perfectly poised where as Winogrand tells us about ourselves. It could be said of Winogrand’s work that the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ serves only as a ‘hook’ to draw the viewer closer to a more pressing and vital clue to the human condition manifest in his images, that is to say, Winogrand’s photographs give us a glimpse of where we have been and where we are heading.

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Cartier Bresson said “To me, 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.”  This is as close to the source of the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ as we can get. It describes the qualities of a unique image taken in isolation to the wider context and relevance to the time in which it was taken – in other words a picture’s manifestation of the ‘Decisive Moment’ relates only to itself and excludes any other appraisal or criticism. But how can a medium as adaptable as photography be confined to a qualification that references only itself and does not relate the image to the world in a wider context?

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For many, Cartier Bresson is the ‘photographer master’ and his development of the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ is the sine qua non of artistic possibility. I confess a deep affection for his images and I am addicted to his portraits but the ‘dynamic’ or ‘form’ of his photographs should only constitute the ‘point of entry’ to the world on display rather than the beginning, middle and end of the story.

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The ‘Decisive Moment’ is justly one of the greatest visual developments, discovered, named and mastered by one of the 20th century’s greatest artists but photography has a much grander, more powerful role to perform in the service of the human story. Photographers like Atget (of whom Cartier Bresson was a fan), Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Josef Koudelka, Nan Goldin, Stephen Shore and so many others have eschewed the tyranny of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in favour of powerful visual story telling that says so much by ignoring the moment and speaking of (and allowing for) eternities of understanding and truth. The ‘Decisive Moment’ has had its time and yet will be with us forever. To chase that moment of perfection in denial of greater more important ambitions for photography is much like chasing rainbows; sometimes fun, often exhausting but always futile.

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Next month I will be writing about the “final act of photography” (as HCB called it) – or the making of the photographic image into a print.

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