3c Decisive Moment

Now, Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log. (EyV p. 71).

Images à la Sauvette,

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment was first published in 1952, in French, as Images à la Sauvette. Badger (2007 p.104) translates this as “images taken on the wing, on the ‘fly’ – stolen images” and describes it as “a somewhat less positive connotation”. The book is a monograph covering two periods of Cartier-Bresson’s work, in Europe, then in India and the East. and also includes an essay by Cartier-Bresson on the concept of the decisive moment. Copies of of the original editions, with its striking dust cover designed by Matisse sell for a minimum of several hundred pounds. The work was reprinted (in both French and English) in 2014, but even that edition costs in the region of £100. The essay has appeared online occasionally, but at the time of writing (16th November 2018) no extant sources have been found. The essay has been reprinted in a number of academic works and one of those (Heller et al., 2006) is on order.

There is a long essay here, http://photohelios-team.blogspot.com/2009/02/essay-henri-cartier-bresson-1952.html [accessed 16 November 2018] which might well be from The Decisive Moment, but it is cited as from a later, posthumous collection of his writings The Mind’s Eye, 2005.

The Decisive Moment,

The phrase, decisive moment comes from the C17th French churchman and diplomat, Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz who wrote, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of good ruling is to know and seize this moment.” (Retz, 1717)

Alberto Giacometti,
Maeght Gallery, Paris
, 1961

Perhaps the best known of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs associated with the decisive moment concept is Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932. The whole notion is rather undermined by the fact that Cartier-Bresson has described how the image was taken, unsighted through railings. Setting that knowledge aside for the moment, the term decisive moment applies in the first case to the instant of the scene being photographed but also clearly implies that the photographer’s rôle is decisive in interpreting the scene and choosing the instant to press the shutter release. A much better example of capturing the decisive moment in these terms is his image of Giacometti in the Maeght Gallery. Here the sculptor is captured in a pose that mirrors his works and here the shot is intentional and deliberate, not fortuitous.

Cartier-Bresson’s first Leica,

It is important to remember the technical context here: Cartier-Bresson published the book in 1952 and he had started using a Leica 35mm camera when first released in the early 1930s. Compact 35mm cameras enabled new genres of photography, freeing their users from cumbersome devices and allowing previously unknown freedom of movement and the ability to take photographs unobtrusively. Such cameras were ideally suited to Cartier-Bresson’s photography or, more likely, Cartier-Bresson learned a new mode of photography with his new camera and stuck with it for the next 60 years.

What then, in photographic terms, is the decisive moment? For Cartier-Bresson it 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, 1952, Forward) and it is easy to see how this relates to street photography using a film camera with the relatively slow knob winder. There are, however, three principal areas of divergence from this notion: firstly the role of chance; secondly the genres to which this does not apply so readily; and thirdly the technical advances which have changed the way cameras are used.

Regarding chance, the phrase “decisive moment” and the detailed expansion of the phrase quoted above suggest deliberation and control. Numerous photographers and writers have emphasised the important role of chance. In Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson quotes Fox Talbot in (arguably) the first ever book about photography writing that “one of the charms of photography” is the pleasure of finding details in a photograph not noticed at the time it was taken (Fox Talbot, 1844-46). Thompson also quotes Walker Evans describing his delight in the “swift chance, disarray, wonder and experiment” of the medium (Evans, 1931). In The Photographer’s Eye, Szarkowski (2007) observes that photography can reveal previously unseen and unimagined detail, (p. 100) giving Muybridge’s work as an example, another being Edgerton’s Milkdrop Coronet. Such visual exploration of the unknown may reveal decisive moments, but only by chance and not in Cartier-Bresson’s terms of deliberation.

Turning to genres, in Cartier-Bresson’s type of street photography there can often be a decisive, ideal moment in which to capture the fleeting essence of a scene, but this does not apply to the same extent in still life photographs or necessarily in landscape photography. It can be argued that in some landscapes with changing light conditions or moving cloud patterns there may be ideal moments for exposure, but not in terms of ” the significance of an event”. For sports photography, there are often decisive moments (crossing the finishing line in races, a goal in football, the ball hitting the stumps in cricket) that are predefined by the rules of the game, rather than being created in the art of the photographer. The decisive moment in Cartier-Bresson’s terms exists most fully and perhaps even solely in street photography.

Finally, as regards technology, reference has already been made to Cartier-Bresson’s 35mm camera with a manual film advance. Given the time it takes to physically wind the crank between shots, there might only be one attempt at discerning and photographing the decisive moment. With modern digital cameras shooting at 5, 10 or even more frames per second, a photographer can shoot a burst at a promising scene and then check the result immediately. While this approach may not be as satisfying, as artistically fulfilling as Cartier-Bresson’s, it does establish that photography has changed and moved on from the technology of the 1930s and the definitions of the 1950s. Whether this is a change for the better is a moot point.

Another significant point Cartier-Bresson makes in his essay (perhaps more important than the base definition of the decisive moment in street photography) is that photography is the only art medium which deals in an immediate reality. “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant” (Cartier-Bresson, 1952, Forward): in all other art forms, the artist (or writer or composer etc.) relies on imagination and can revise the piece. While digital processing has allowed degrees of manipulation and artifice that were inconceivable in 1952, this is still largely true of photography in all genres, for, if it does not begin with a photograph of a subject then, arguably, it is not photography.

In conclusion, Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment had a profound effect on photographers and photography at the time: it affected the way photographers viewed themselves and their art; it affected how they went about making their art; and it eventually affected how they and their art were perceived and appreciated by the art establishment and to a certain extent by the public. That impact has resonated over subsequent decades.
While changes to the way photographs are used, the way photographs are made and the markets and methods by which they are sold have lessened and narrowed the direct relevance of Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment to his particular genre, it remains an important concept and it should be remembered that there were other important ideas advanced in his Forward to the book.

References (for this piece alone)
Badger, G. (2007) The genius of photography. How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Cartier-Bresson, H. The decisive moment. New York: Simon and Schuster. Cited in Hsu, L. (2015) The Decisive Moment. Fraction Issue 81, December 2015. [Online]. [Accessed 18 November 2018]. Available from http://www.fractionmagazine.com/the-decisive-moment/

Evans, W. (1931) The reappearance of photography, Hound and Horn. 5(1), p. 126. Cited in Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Fox Talbot, W.H. (1844-46) The pencil of nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Cited in Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Heller, S. and Traub, C. (eds) (2006) The education of a photographer. New York: Allworth Press

Retz, Cardinal (1717) Memoirs of the cardinal de Retz. Cited in Photohélios The decisive moment. [Online]. [Accessed 16 November 2018].Available from: http://photohelios-team.blogspot.com/2009/02/essay-henri-cartier-bresson-1952.html

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye Revised 3rd ed. New York: MoMA.