My view of the Decisive Moment debate
What is ‘the decisive moment’?
The first thing to consider about ‘the decisive moment’ is what the term actually means. I looked up some definitions, and have noted down the ones I felt described it best:
There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson in Washington Post (2016)
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 organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.
– Cartier-Bresson (2014)
The decisive moment refers to capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.
– PetaPixel (2013)
Does the concept have relevance today?
Colin Pantall’s Photoeye.com review of Paul Graham’s book The Present (Paul Graham, 2012) suggests that the decisive moment is not relevant to the modern urban environment:
[What Graham] wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.
[…] He is not so much showing us something as posing a question; what do we look at when we look at a photograph? So if we look at the first diptych, in one picture we see the Heineken truck in the foreground, flip the gatefold open and the truck has gone and we get the Manhattan skyline. In another pair we see an elderly couple walking across busy road, time moves on, the focus changes and we get a girl in a red and white vest standing on a manhole cover. […] A few steps change who and what we look at.
– Pantall (2012)
Based on the definitions given by Cartier-Bresson himself and many other commentators, I personally see no reason why Paul Graham’s images should not qualify as decisive moments. Each captures a moment in the life of the city and its inhabitants, a unique moment that will never be repeated. Pantall himself notes that “time moves on… A few steps change who and what we look at.” I attended an exhibition of images from Graham’s book in Paris in 2012, and their impact is quite different at the very large scale they were presented in the gallery. Instead of monotonous urban snapshots they looked very much like decisive moments, giving us the same sense as Cartier-Bresson’s images that an essence of a place and time has been captured as well as a unique moment.
The composition of Graham’s images is not as comfortable as Cartier-Bresson’s and can seem a bit off-kilter – we might wonder why he’s cut people’s legs off, for example. But this slightly jarring framing mirrors the feeling of dislocation we might experience in an environment that is both familiar because its signage and layout are universal in today’s world and unfamiliar because we don’t recognise the specific locations or people. It is precisely in this respect, in fact, that the images can be argued to give the captured moments their “proper expression”.
But it becomes apparent when reading Zouhair Ghazzal (Ghazzal, 2004) that much of the debate about the decisive moment concerns the timeframe that the decisive moment exists in. At one extreme the definition includes nothing but images that could only have been captured at a specific microsecond and would not otherwise exist in even close approximation – Cartier-Bresson’s Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare being the epitome of this and the image most often used to illustrate the concept. At the other extreme it can be argued that even landscapes can be decisive moments, if they capture both a unique moment and the essence of the place and/or event. Both extremes are covered by the definitions above.
Ghazzal leans far more towards an extremely short timeframe, in which the moments either side of the decisive moment must be quite different. Based on Ghazzal’s definition a large proportion of Cartier-Bresson’s own images would not qualify as decisive moments. My own tendency – at this point in time at least – is to say that if an image is well composed and captures the mood of its subject it can count as a decisive moment.
At its core, the decisive moment is indeed mostly anecdotic—composed of short accounts of humorous or interesting incidents.
… the decisive moment works best when the sudden cut in time and space that the photograph operates through the release of the shutter is meaningful, as it narrates to us in a single frame the before and after.
That’s why bodily gestures are presumably an easier catch for the decisive moment, as no two gestures are alike: only gestures differentiate that endless and nauseating time-space flux.
– Ghazzal (2004)
References and resources
(2014) Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment. Germany: Steidl.
2012) ‘The Present’. Available from: http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/05_17_The_Present.cfm
2016) ‘How the world’s most legendary photo agency is celebrating its 70th birthday’. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2016/06/06/how-the-worlds-most-legendary-photo-agency-is-celebrating-its-70th-birthday/?utm_term=.5ae03e251621 (