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.