Category: Part 3

Part 3 The decisive moment – where do I stand?

Does one actually have to have a ‘position’ and just exactly what does having a position actually mean?  Is this something that you can be for or against?

For what it is worth I think there is a problem with the expression itself.  It is worth remembering that this is just the English title for the book whose original French title is “Images a la sauvette”.  Whilst my French is these days somewhat rusty I would translate this, literally, as “pictures in haste”.  “The Decisive Moment” has a ring to it but even though HCB himself chose the English title I do feel that something got out in translation.  I feel the French title more effectively sums up what HCB was on about; seizing a particular instant as it occurred.  Blink and you will miss it.  The English version moves off into different territory of, for example, ‘significance’ or importance that I do not believe is what HCB really meant.  It has as a result become weighed down by ideas of theory, you might say has become a ‘school’, which perhaps explains why there are so many pictures out there that in some way mimic what HCB did but are without any real sense of individuality. let alone originality.

My feeling is that it is something that describes what HCB did, what was important to him in his practice, and should remain as such and not be treated as a ‘big idea’ or theory and universally applicable technique.

While looking into the subject generally one thought that nagged at me throughout was how do we know this was truly the decisive moment?  We do not know what came before or after so how can we judge?  If HCB had taken multiple shots and then chosen the right one we might have been able to see but I am not sure I have ever seen the sort of contact sheet left by HCB that would enable us to do so.  I think therefore that we can only take it that for HCB that instant was the right one to take the shot, but that does not mean that it would necessarily be the same for anyone else in the same situation.

From this point of view the Photo-Eye Magazine article about Paul Graham’s “The Present” was interesting.  I do not necessarily agree with everything he has to say but I do like the idea of exploring a view in a multiple of moments, to see how things change, to explore other possibilities.  In a way, by concentrating on just one particular moment HCB deliberately closed down the possibility of other moments being decisive.  If however the idea is to snatch and capture a particular moment I see no reason why you not try to capture a number of moments, to open up the possibility of alternatives, without having to indulge in sociological pessimism and ennui.


Part 3 “L’amour tout court”

This is not a film that I had seen before but I did not exactly come to it fresh having first done some reading around the subject of the decisive moment.

Whilst the course book talks about the importance of dealing with quotations appropriately, which I fully take on board, I am not sure that I feel it particularly useful in this case to quote from the film.  So far as the concept of the decisive moment is concerned I think I have probably already quoted enough in my research post.  I also feel that this film, rather than a photo or a written text, is more akin to a drawing – HCB’s first and last love, to which he returned later in life having virtually given up photography.  As such it is something that has to be looked at as a whole, and reacted to accordingly.  To quote anything would be as incongruous as looking at individual lines of the drawing in isolation.  That would not tell you anything about the drawing as a whole.

So what, over all is my response to the film?  One point that strikes me is that if it had not been for the fact I had already read around the subject I am not sure I would necessarily be much the wiser about what the decisive moment is.  It is not so much that HCB is evasive on the subject (there are similar feints, vaguenesses, incomplete answers, in his conversations with John Berger) but he does not really give everything away.  I wonder whether to some extent his approach was so instinctual, and rooted so much in obsessive observation that the idea of the decisive moment was in some way an ex post facto rationalisation to give meaning to what he did.  I do not know, and it is not necessarily a negative thing if that is the case.  Certainly though his vagueness and reticence strike me as being imbued with a degree of embarrassment that his phrase has become so freighted with ‘significance’.  For HCB it is just what he did – he looked, saw something of interest, and took a picture.

Just as he seemed reluctant to expound upon his practice I was particularly touched, if that is the right word, by his reluctance to talk in detail about his past.  I got the clear impression that there were events and things that had happened to him in the past that he does not remember fondly and would simply rather not talk about.  Perhaps it is his Buddhist belief at work, living in the moment and not dwelling in or on the past?  Strangely he reminded me a lot of my own late grandfather had lived through much but rarely chose to speak of his past.

Otherwise I was impressed by his firmness and strength of character, his readiness to criticise his own work and to resist and challenge attempts to set it upon a pedestal and idolise it.

I have to confess I am not much impressed by his own writings, as I commented in my blog post about “The Mind’s Eye”, but I found his sparse answers and laconic manner to be much more interesting, and not least endearing.

Part 3 The Decisive Moment – Research

The phrase “the decisive moment” is one that I have long been aware of and have always associated only with Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB).  In fact I am not sure I have ever thought about this phrase in connection with any other photographer.  Without necessarily understanding the phrase or indeed HCB’s approach to picture taking I have previously just taken it to be a phrase that is specific to, and describes only HCB’s ethos and practice.  Having now done some proper research I think I understand better what HCB meant and have formed a view on whether this is indeed just something that sums up HCB’s working methods or whether it is an idea that can be of wider relevance.  I will deal with that conclusion in a separate post.

What does it mean?  I had originally though that HCB was talking about capturing a significant or important moment in time, a pivotal point around which events turn.  However it is clear once I started actually to look at his photographs closely, in particular at “The Decisive Moment” itself, that this is not correct in so far as in many cases there is nothing to suggest that any given moment captured in these photographs was any more significant than any other that was not similarly captured.

Yes, there is a degree of significance in the moment:  “…I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unravelling itself before my eyes.”  (Cartier-Bresson, 1999, page 22.)  However he also talks in various places about the importance of geometry and the Golden Section.  It is not always clear to me exactly what he means when he speaks of this and it would not appear to be something premeditated or composed as such but can be applied after the event to judge whether the image is successful or not.  Clearly as quoted in the course material from the film “L’amour tout court” chance played a very large part.  The impression I am left with is that of the greatest importance to him was to look, to observe, and then note when the image before him was just right and at that moment raise his camera.  As he said in conversation with John Berger:  “Photography .. is a spontaneous impulse which comes from perpetually looking, and which seizes the instant and its eternity.”  (Berger, 2013, page 145.)

Quoting Szarkowski in “The Photographer’s Eye”:  while freezing time, the photographer “… discovered that there was a pleasure and a beauty in this fragmenting of time that had little to do with what was happening.  It had rather to do with seeing the … patterning of lines and shapes … previously concealed.” (la Grange, 2006, page 19.)

A moment was decisive because “in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order because the image became, for an instant, a picture”. (la Grange, 2006, page 20.)

As HCB himself put it when discussing ‘Rue Mouffetard’ (1955) quoted by Franklin:  “I was there and this is how life appeared to me at that moment.”  (Franklin, 2016, page 156.)

In the essay by Cheroux that accompanies the Steidl reprint of “The Decisive Moment” he usefully sums up the practice in these terms:  “For CB, the expression described a form of apex in the double movement of the photographer and his subject;  at a precise given moment things organise themselves in the viewfinder in an authentic and significant arrangement, and that is when one has to trigger the shutter.  A sort of Kairos, the decisive moment is a formal equilibrium that reveals the essence of a situation.  In CB’s words, it is ‘in the span of a fraction of a second, the simultaneous acknowledgement of the meaning of a fact on one hand, and on the other, the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that express this fact’.”  (Cheroux, 2014, page 15.)

One thing that particularly struck me when reading about HCB was the possible influence on his ideas and practice of his interest in Buddhism.  In the quote from Berger above he spoke of “the instant and its eternity”.  It is an important concept of Buddhism that eternity is contained within an instant.  I cannot remember where I first read it but a phrase that usefully sums this up for me is “eternity is in a moment and that moment is now”.  There is no past and no future:  we live in a series of moments and each moment contains everything.

Another important concept that seems to be at work is the idea of non-dualism, the proposition that everyone and everything, is connected, that there is no “I and not I”.  As Cheroux puts it, though in different words, the decisive moment arises when the photographer and subject are in harmony.  They are not separate and the image is only possible when and because they are in harmony.  This seems to be supported by HCB’s reference to a letter written by Einstein that he quoted to John Berger: “I have such a feeling of solidarity with everything alive that it doesn’t seem to me important to know where the individual ends or begins…’ (Berger. 2013, page 142.)

Berger, J, (2013).  Understanding a Photograph.  London: Penguin.

Cartier-Bresson, H, (2014).  The Decisive Moment.  Germany: Steidl.

Cartier-Bresson, H, (1999).  The Mind’s Eye.  New York:  Aperture Foundation.

Cheroux, C, (2014).  A bible for photographers.  Germany: Steidl

Franklin, S, (2016).  The Documentary Impulse.  London: Phaidon.

la Grange, A, (2006).  Basic Critical Theory for Photographers.  Oxford: Focal Press.

Exercise 3.3.2

Not for the first time I am at something of a loss to understand what the outcome of this exercise is supposed to be.  Is it about depth of field and taking in the whole view; is it about movement and blur again; is it about looking at the whole view but photographing only part of it; or something else?  My best guess is that it is the third option but I cannot say with any degree of certainty.

What I have therefore done is hedge my bets and have a go at all three.

First attempt: depth of field and hyerfocal distance.

For this I took an elevated position presenting a view with details all the way from the close foreground to the horizon, with some sky (a view from the terrace of Brodick Castle on Arran looking across the bay back towards the town).  Using a wide angle and large f stop I have tried to include as much of the view as possible in as sharp focus as possible.

1/80s, f/22, 24mm

I do not really think that this is what is intended!

Second attempt: panning the camera

For this I chose a view from an upstairs window at home (as suggested by the brief) that includes detail right throughout its depth.  I started by pointing the camera at the nearest detail and then panned upward towards the sky as I released the shutter.  I first tried the camera’s Bulb setting but the image was so overexposed it showed nothing.  After a bit of experimenting I came up with a longish exposure that still captured something, although it is not at all clear what is being looked at.

1/5s, f/22, 50mm.

Again I find it hard to believe that this is what is intended.

Third attempt; raising the camera and shooting “into the brown”

I actually had two goes at this.  First I chose the view, lifted the camera into it and shot just as the camera came to a halt with a long exposure, hence the slight blur.

1/5s, f/22, 50mm

The second time I waited for the camera to come to a halt first, so the final image is a bit more ‘composed’ in so far as I chose which part of the over all view to capture, giving a much sharer image.  As the camera was set to Shutter priority the corresponding aperture gives a much shallower depth of field.

1/60s, f/9, 50mm

What do I get from this exercise?  To be honest, not much at the moment, other than that it made me look at this particular view in a more focused way, leading me to see more clearly some details that I would ordinarily miss.  Maybe though I am just missing the point and should revisit this once I have finished my research on this part of the course, HCB and the Decisive Moment?