EYV 3 The decisive moment
What makes these images decisive moments?
— Image 1: This one is very much about the compositional elements falling into place at the moment of the image – the triangle of the boys’ heads forms a focal point and the girl’s eyeline cuts directly across them to the food wagon. The boys appear to be looking for directions, and the Indian-style cart suggests that they might be in a foreign place, which in fact they are, as they are students from one of Brighton’s many English language schools.
— Image 2: This captures a moment when two contrasting worlds, one male and the other female, are juxtaposed but each remains oblivious to the other’s existence. The young men seem sure of their place in the world and stride out confidently, while the women are inward-looking, preoccupied with improving their appearance.
— Image 3: This is about a moment of intense concentration in which two men are focused entirely on the salami that one is going to sell the other.
— Image 4: This one again is a composition that fell into place just as I I took the picture. The woman on the right turned away from the window and concealed her face with her hand when she saw the camera, leaving the ghostly face of the woman beside her as the main focal point of the image. Her hand then became a counterpoint to the extended hand of the woman on the left of the picture, highlighting the image’s nail bar subject.
— Image 5: This image captures the relationship between the subjects in both body language and signs – he is OPEN (as we can also see from his manspreading), and his reflection tells us that he has love in mind. The text between them “…friendly as long as…” could apply to either or both of them. Certainly the woman’s closed body language shows us that she has reservations.
— Image 6: This image catches the moment of delight on the busker’s face as he counts his takings, and (like image 1) is also about two different worlds crossing without even seeing each other.
Having asserted that the decisive moment is still relevant in today’s urban environment, I decided to put my opinion to the test and look for my decisive moments in the town’s main shopping area. I would therefore be focusing mainly on people, giving me an opportunity to put into practice some of the lessons I learned from the Collecting assignment, in particular the need to shoot closer to people if I want to make them the main focal point of the image. This would mean upping my brazenness. I decided to use the 50mm prime lens that I found so effective in my previous assignment thanks to its relatively discreet size.
The bulk of my research for this assignment involved investigating what the decisive moment means and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s own approach to it. I documented this research in two posts in my learning log – one about the Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary L’amour tout court and the other about the decisive moment debate, and would only add that I subsequently found another definition of the decisive moment, which is again from Cartier-Bresson and which is actually the one I like best because it seems to emphasise more strongly than the others the possibility that a fortuitous composition can be a decisive moment in and of itself.
[The decisive moment is] the recognition of a fact, in a fraction of a second, and the rigorous arrangement of the forms, visually perceived, which gave to that fact expression and significance.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson, quoted in Hill (1982)
At first I was unsure what I was looking for, wondering how I would recognise any decisive moments. Then I remembered my takeaway lesson from what Cartier-Bresson had said in L’amour tout court: Be alert, look, don’t presuppose what you’re looking for, follow your intuition and let yourself see what is there waiting to be found. My boldness in snapping people grew as I took more pictures, but at such close range people often became aware of being photographed and took evasive action as I lifted my camera to my eye, and the moment I had wanted to capture was gone. Occasionally, though, the opposite happened and things fell into place just as I took the picture. I took 79 photos on this shoot and 47 on a second shoot a few days later. (Contact sheets for both shoots can be seen here.)
It was pretty clear immediately when I looked at each image whether it had captured a potentially decisive moment or not. Of the 126 shots just 17 made it through to the second round of editing. A much smaller proportion of images from the second shoot were included, mainly because it took place on a very bright, sunny day, which meant that glare was an issue and the area was much more crowded than on the first shoot, so composition was often compromised.
I next weeded out the images that didn’t fit with my urban theme. (I had kept in mind my second takeaway from L’amour tout court – Never stop looking! – so had continued shooting after leaving the area, open to the possibility of changing my theme if a different one presented itself.) This left me with eight images, which I converted to b&w – as a reference to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment images and because its flattening effect helps to emphasise composition, which is such an important aspect of the decisive moment concept, and also because I am currently on a learning curve with b&w and would like to get to grips with its particular requirements in terms of both screen and print output.
I decided to get all eight images printed and make a final decision about which of them to include after that. Once I received the prints I dropped two and kept six that I felt worked together well and had captured decisive moments.
Reflection before tutor feedback
I realise that in attempting to capture images in which the compositional elements are arranged by chance in a manner that reveals something about the subject matter, I’ve approached this assignment in a very literal manner, focusing entirely on the relationship between the camera and its environment. These kind of moments are decisive for the camera, but not necessarily for the subject/s of the image. Looking at other students’ submissions for this assignment I see that many have taken a more conceptual approach and have set out to make images in which the subject itself is a decisive moment – for example, the results of a pregnancy test, a turning point in a child’s life and other similar events. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this, but it’s interesting to be reminded that there are many different ways of approaching the same subject.
Reflection after tutor feedback
My tutor’s feedback confirmed that my approach to this assignment was “traditional” and also noted that it was quite similar to assignment 2, adding that my development would benefit from greater experimentation. He noted the presence of reflections in most of the images and referred me to (amongst other resources) an article about mirrors and windows (MOMA, 1980) which suggests that a photograph can be seen as “either a mirror – a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window – through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality”. I found this analysis interesting, and it gave me a better understanding of what it is I enjoy about taking this kind of photo, aside from the pleasure that goes with any kind of hunting when you catch your (metaphorical) quarry.
References and resources
Hill, P. (1982) Approaching Photography. UK: Butterworth & Co (Publishers) Ltd.
MOMA (1980) Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960. Available at: https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_327154.pdf [accessed 06/02/18]