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