16th June 2021
Quite incredible, isn’t it, that one of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century was down to luck? Luck, chance, ‘hazard’ – whatever it may be, the influence of Cartier-Bresson has been profound, both in photojournalism through the Magnum agency, which he co-founded, and in street photography generally.OCA EYC (2014)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: ‘L’amour tout cour (Interview)
During the video, we hear Henri Cartier-Bresson’s discuss his work and life in some detail, especially the more iconic works which have worldwide recognition for their composition and timing. Images such as the iconic Fig. 1 Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (1932) and the infamous Fig. 4 Hyères, France (1934).
Cartier-Bresson puts a great deal of success for a photograph in its geometry; he intuitively knows the ratios and proportions to make an image work. He cites: ‘1.618…3.1416…The golden number’ (Cartier-Bresson: 2001). This is the Fibonacci sequence, otherwise known as the golden ratio.
However, one word that he relates back to within the video, connected with producing good photographs and in particular, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, is luck, ‘It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters. You have to be receptive that’s all. Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance’ (Cartier-Bresson: 2001).
The decisive moment as luck, is the split-second when all the desired elements come together within the cameras field of view, which the photographer then captures by releasing the shutter release button and creating a ‘perfect’ compelling composition.
Cartier-Bresson explains in the documentary, ‘The Decisive Moment’ (2016) that even if the perfect background containing the beauty of shapes and geometry and structure was found, if the subject is not in the perfect position within the composition then the relationship between the two will not work.
The diagram below shows geometry, leading lines and subject matter that all work together to provide a detailed and dynamic, balanced composition.
John Suler: The Psychology of the “Decisive Moment”
John Suler in his article The Psychology of the “Decisive Moment” (s.d.) writes that after studying the ‘Decisive Moment’ and Henri Cartier-Bresson quotes, that he found ten important facets of the Decisive Moment which are:
- Composition, Visual Coalescence, and Gestalt Psychology
- Figure/ Ground Relationships and the Gestalt Field
- Closure, The Gap, Anticipation
- Ambiguity and Curiosity
- Capturing the Unique Fleeting Moment
- The One Hit Wonder
- Candid Shots of People in Real Life
- Meaning and Emotion
- The Shoot Leading to Decisive Moment Shots
- Skills in Capturing the Decisive Moment
In the online article Suler proceeds to unpack these ten aspects exploring and explaining their role in the production of Decisive Moment images. He states that,
If you examine online photo-sharing groups devoted to DM photography, each group defines it differently. Some have very strict, meticulous criteria (different that what I propose). Some offer a simple definition, such as “Have you been blessed by space and time, to have pressed the shutter release button at exactly the precise moment to get the perfect shot?” Others simply refuse to explain it at all.Suler, J. (s.d.)
It is not only the photographers of online discussion groups and specific Decisive Moment groups that differ in their opinion of and their terminology of the Decisive Moment.
As part of our research into the Decisive moment we are asked to look at three differing views of the practice by Liz Wells, Paul Graham and Zouhair Ghazzal.
Liz Wells: Documenting meaning and form (2001:98-99)
Increasingly, documentary turned away from attempting to record what would formerly have been seen as its major subjects. The endeavour to make great statements gave way to the recording of little dislocated moments which merely insinuated that some greater meaning might be at stake.Wells, 2009:73 cited in OCA EYV, 2014:71
It is interesting to note that Wells’ comments on the Decisive Moment as being dislocated moments which hint to a greater story, relate to the fact that information beyond the images picture plane is lost and may be of importance to the overall context of the snippet of time and place which has been recorded.
Well’s also comments that ‘Cartier-Bresson’s work is sometimes regarded as documentary, but he is often seen as working outside the constraints of labels of this kind’ (Wells, 2001:98).
Cartier-Bresson himself states that he is not interested in documentary photography because it is ‘very dull’. Where Well’s is looking at and discussing the decisive moment from a documentary perspective, Cartier-Bresson is in fact collecting information that is visually pleasurable, where there are rhythms between different elements where geometry means structure and when everything is in place which includes the subject, the image will evoke a sensual and intellectual pleasure (Cartier-Bresson s.d.: The Decisive moment 1973-2007).
Well’s is looking at the decisive moment in a complete different context with different aims and objectives. In the above quote she discusses how the decisive moment within documentary photography is often a ‘fragmentation’ of a whole event. These fragmentations can alter peoples understanding of, and perceptions of the ‘truth’ which misleads the viewers of the image, although this can be said of all different genres of photography. Cartier-Bresson however was looking at the fragment of time he caught as a stand alone fragment, yes it was part of a bigger scene but the ‘bigger scene’ beyond his cameras field of view was not the focus of his decisive moment.
The decisive moment can be used to please a viewer, where aesthetic composition and subject-matter come together in a creative manner, as in many of Cartier-Bresson’s images or it can be used to document information of a specific telling moment. The problem with documentary fragments however is that the viewer has to trust that the image is not misinterpreting the event as a whole and is not showing a bias point of view or set of attitudes, or indeed is missing out valuable information, information that is in reality being censored and therefore manipulating how the viewer can interpret the given information.
Paul Graham: The Present
… what he 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.Pantall, C. 2012
Having watched a YouTube video of Graham’s book, The present being turned page by page, I believe that Pantall’s critique of the series of images does not look deep enough into the meaning of the work but shallowly skims the visual information, ‘… a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for Pantall 2012.
For me personally, each image is a decisive moment which when viewed together with its pair, or in its triptych, provide a sense of passing time as well as movement within the ‘snippet’ of the location that we view. Grahams’ ‘Decisive Moments’ are the next evolutionary steps of Cartier-Bressons’ ‘Decisive Moment’.
They may seem ‘decisively indecisive’ when viewed individually but they were created to be viewed together, in succession. They are sequences of life, sequences of decisive moments that reflect not a frozen part of time but multiple frozen parts of time.
Liz Jobey, in her article, Paul Graham: ‘The Present’ (2012) states that,
His New York pictures deal with questions of awareness and consciousness: with how much we see, how we see it, how we make the same slight shifts in focus and vantage point, continually moving our concentration from one thing to the next.Jobey, L. 2012
The statement above positively sees the content of the information within each image, it is life, it is normality, and although Pantall states that the viewer ‘… does not know what he is looking at or looking for’ and describes how one shot’s content can drastically change within the next shot,
‘… 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… a man with a cane walks across the middle of the frame. A few seconds later, two policemen stand in his place, one looking directly at the camera.‘ Pantall, C. (2012)
The point I feel has been missed by Pantall. Graham is capturing scenes how we would see life unfolding before us, the changes are quick and often unnoticeable, glimpse away from one decisive moment and then that split second later when you turn back, the next decisive moment that you glance at has completely changed from the first.
Like all techniques, scientific discoveries, theories, cultures, societies, cities etc… the ‘Decisive Moment’ has evolved with them, Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moments is different from the new decisive moments and how work and what they represent. They have their own ethos, their own reality that they are trying to capture, they have been created out of Cartier-Bresson’s original concept and practice of ‘The Decisive Moment’.
Zouhair Ghazzal: the indecisiveness of the decisive moment
Zouhair Ghazzal agrees that the decisive moment has become more of a cliché than a reality, although he believes it can contain something essential of life. But in a similar way to Pantall’s interpretation of Graham’s work, Ghazzal finds the contemporary urban landscape just ‘too monotonous and dull’ for the decisive moment.OCA EYV 2014:72
I find Ghazzal’s post inadequate in providing solid evidence for his argument that the decisive moment has become more of a cliché than a reality. In fact much of his post reads as statements which have little information to back them up. The decisive moment is only a cliché if photographers shoot the same subject matter as Cartier-Bresson, if their images are showing decisive moments that have subject matter and locations different to him then the photographs are not stereotypical.
He states that Cartier-Bresson’s images ‘are short accounts of humorous or interesting incidents…’, ‘they have very little meaning…’, and ‘… best with bodies and gestures’. He then goes on to argue that when Cartier-Bresson took his images the neighbourhoods then were different from our modern time neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods which now are repetitive urban landscapes providing less opportunities for the decisive moment shots.
These two aspects of Ghazzal’s writing have astonished me. Firstly it doesn’t matter what era any photographer lives and works in, all circumstances, landscapes (whether urban or rural), society and people change. At the time Cartier-Bresson coined the term ‘The Decisive Moment’ he was recording ‘his’ era and the reality within it. Ghazzal writes that the urban landscape of today is just ‘too monotonous and dull’ for the decisive moment, however I argue that it depends where you are and how well you look at your surroundings and the peoples’ relationship to it. There are many interesting places to take decisive moment images in urban landscapes.
Secondly, Ghazzal states that Cartier-Bresson’s images only work well when there are bodies and gestures within them. So what? This statement is like saying that Ansel Adams images only work well when there is a landscape in them. Cartier-Bresson’s subject matter is how he liked to express the decisive moment, it was his focus, just as I have my own way to express the decisive moment and other photographers, as John Suller explains in his article, have their own subject-matters and definitions of the decisive moment.
The decisive moment is a technique that stays the same, but the world has evolved bringing with it, not monotonous urban landscapes but different ones with different subject matter. Cartier-Bresson said in ‘The Decisive Moment (1973-2007)’ interview that,
To interest people on far away places, to shock and delight them is not to difficult. The thing is when it’s your own country it’s routine and difficult. The places he goes to all of the time, he knows too much and not enough.Cartier-Bresson, H. (s.d.)j
Cartier-Bresson goes on to say that your mind must be open and aware, like having a radar or a search light. Therefore, in relation to Ghazzal’s statement that the contemporary urban landscape is too monotonous and dull, he actually needs to look at locations that he does not know so that he can see with fresh eyes environments which are new to him and then observe the people within these environments.
Another aspect that Ghazzal is not thinking of is the viewers experience of locations. If I am shown modern decisive moments in, for example, Los Angeles, I am going to look at them with fresh eyes. The information within these images will be new and therefore impactful because they are ‘exotic’ and they form part of a culture that I am not part of, just as when Cartier-Bresson was photographing Baghdad’s neighbourhoods. I would respond differently to Los Angeles images to those that live there and the environments have become everyday scenes which they walk past.
There has only been one thoughtful valid point in the criticism for the rejection of the practice of the ‘Decisive Moment’. This aspect is where the decisive moment is taken out of context, due to the fact that it does not tell the whole story, which could be misleading to the viewer (Wells 2009).
However, Cartier-Bresson was not emphasising a moment from a bigger picture. Although there is a story behind some of his decisive moments, these images usually coincide with his documentary practices which is a totally different genre to his decisive moment one.
To Cartier-Bresson the decisive moment is a creative one which gives him pleasure and contains people within a ‘background containing the beauty of shapes and geometry and structure’ The Decisive Moment (2016). These ‘rhythm’ images, The Decisive Moment (1973-2007), are not snippets that document more than the commonplace life that surrounds us all on a daily basis, for instance, a riot or a war. Events such as these have factual details that cannot be taken out of context as Liz Well’s has noted these snippets only hint at the bigger picture beyond the image, and information lost means the viewer does not receive the fullness of the event and can often be misled (intentionally or not) into imagining the remaining of the ‘story’ incorrectly.
For me, Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment can be used different from one person to the next. Perhaps the confusion lays within the term becoming an umbrella term for different practices which John Suler found in his research.
What ever the ‘style’ of decisive moment a photographer practices, there will only be one origin decisive moment technique which Cartier-Bresson used, the rest are developments of this, it has evolved and taken different routes and one should not clump them all under his Decisive Moment process.
Extra research: Notes and diagrams
Henri Cartier-Bresson: ‘L’amour tout cour’ uploaded to YouTube by Niels Tacoma (06.03.14)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment (1973-2007) uploaded to YouTube by bt465 (06.01.2016)
Henri-Cartier Bresson: The Decisive Moment uploaded to YouTube by Photo Tom (13.04.2021)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moments of a Street Photography Master uploaded to YouTube by About Photography (14.11.18)
Zouhair Ghazzal: The indecisiveness of the decisive moment
Fig. 1 Cartier- Bresson, H. (1932) Behind the Gare Saint Lazare. [Photograph] At: https://learn.oca.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=77#section-3 (Accessed 26/04/2021)
Fig. 2 Cartier-Bresson, H. (1951) Scanno, L’aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. [Photograph] At: https://thehotbid.com/2017/12/15/photographer-henri-cartier-bresson-mastered-the-decisive-moment-a-casually-perfect-1951-shot-from-italy-could-command-15000-at-phillips/ (Accessed 15/05/2021)
Fig. 3 Cartier-Bresson, H. (1961) Girl Running Up Steps. [Photograph] https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/henri-cartier-bresson-at-peter-fetterman-gallery/ (Accessed 07/05/2021)
Fig. 4 Cartier-Bresson, H. (1932) Hyéres, France. [Photograph] https://www.moma.org/collection/works/44586 (Accessed 15/05/2021)
Fig. 5 Munkasci, M. (1930) Three Boys at Lake Tanganyike. [Photograph] https://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/iconic-images/three-boys-at-lake-tanganyika-by-martin-munkacsi-iconic-photograph-20723 (Accessed 20/05/2021)
Wells, S. (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction. (2nd Ed.) Glasgow: Bell and Bain Ltd
Henri Cartier-Bresson: L’amour de court [YouTube] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYYwqo8HKbw (Accessed 19/05/2021)
Henri-Cartier Bresson: The Decisive Moment [YouTube] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdgoFosUoYo (Accessed 03/05/2021)
Henri-Cartier Bresson: The Decisive Moment (1973-2007) [YouTube] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14ih3WgeOLs (Accessed 07/05/2021)
Henri Cartier Bresson: The Decisive Moments of a Street Photography Master [YouTube] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrFvnouy2B0 ((Accessed 04/05/2021)
Ghazzal, Z. (2004) the indecisiveness of the decisive moment. At: http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson.htm (Accessed 10/06/2021)
Jobey, L. (2012) Paul Graham: ‘The Present’. At: https://www.ft.com/content/f97e3a3a-5206-11e1-a30c-00144feabdc0 (Accessed 13/06/2021)
Pantall, C. (2012) photo-eye book Reviews: The Present. At: https://blog.photoeye.com/2012/05/photo-eye-book-reviews-present.html (Accessed 12/06/2021)
Suler, J. (s.d.) The Psychology of the “Decisive Moment”. At: http://users.rider.edu/~suler/photopsy/decisive_moment.htm (Accessed 10/06/2021)