Category Archives: Part 3

The Decisive Moment – or Not?

The decisive moment as a photographic meme comes from the book ‘The Decisive Moment’ by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Cartier-Bresson, 1852) where, in his introduction he quotes Cardinal de Retz ‘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’ (De Retz, 1717).  Cartier-Bresson describes this as ‘the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression’. Interestingly, the book, in its original French printing was called ‘Images à la Sauvette’ meaning images on the run which gives a different emphasis – focusing on the photographer’s actions rather than the moment captured.

The phase and the book have both been discussed repeatedly, by photographers, critics and others with a variety of thoughts on the subject. O’Hagen, in a review of a second edition said ‘For me, what is interesting about the republishing of The Decisive Moment is that it has happened too late. The book is now a historical artefact. It cements an idea of photography that is no longer current but continues to exist as an unquestioned yardstick in the public eye: black and white, acutely observational, meticulously composed, charming. Colour and conceptualism may as well not have happened, so enduring is this model of photography outside the world of contemporary photography itself’ (O’Hagen, 2014). Zouhair Ghazzal said ‘Granted that the decisive moment is more of a cliché than a reality, even for its own creator, it still has the status of a myth with too much of an unconscious impact on photojournalism to be dismissed too easily ……. The decisive moment is therefore that infinitely small and unique moment in time which cannot be repeated, and that only the photographic lens can capture.’ (Ghazzal, 2014) and then he goes on to suggest that in modern cities there is no centre and no individuality that would allow the camera (or presumably the photographer) to capture a decisive moment. In an extensive article, the psychologist John Suler dissects what it takes to make a decisive moment – summarised in a series of 10 rules the final one of which is ‘The DM photo is a product of a unique set of technical, cognitive, and emotional skills developed from extensive training and experience in photography, as well as from a psychological knowledge of people’ (Suler, 2013).

The theme that the decisive moment is no longer relevant is suggested in the review by Colin Pantall of the photobook ‘The Present’ by Paul Graham when he says ‘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……. He is not so much showing us something as posing a question; what do we look at when we look at a photograph?’ (Pantall, 2012).  Writing in Black and White Photography Magazine Alex Schneideman argues that ‘street photography… characterised by chance and the interplay between humanity and the built environment is attractive in concept, but not always worthy of the attention it receives…. it has become a gentle pastime that can be successful by its own standards without delving beneath the surface’ (Schneideman, 2017) implying that there has been something lost in the ongoing urge to simply take photographs in the street without focusing on an underlying concept.

Decisive means settling an issue; producing a definite result and having or showing the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively, while moment means a very brief period of time and an appropriate time for doing something; an opportunity or a particular stage in the development of something or in a course of events (Oxford Dictionaries, English,2017).  If you look momentarily outside the field of photography this is discussed in crime novels ‘What is an event, actually? Blinking is an event, going to the toilet is an event, sitting in a café is an event, thinking a thought is an event too. All the things we do and all the things that happen, are events.’ (Horst,2011), autobiography Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments’. (Rose Kennedy, 1974) and music (Pink Floyd, 1973)

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

Thought I’d something more to say –I think this is the important idea that comes out of all the above. A moment in time, all still photography is capturing a moment in time, it may be very short, a millisecond or less, freezing a frame to capture the beat of a hummingbird’s wing or a falling drop, or several days as in the photography of Wesely, or when capturing the movement of the stars at night. The meme of the decisive moment carries with it connotations of black and white street images with an aura of the past, a romanticised view of time gone by and expert photographers swinging Leica’s from their hips to catch a sudden event. Is it still relevant? Yes, but maybe not if you only think of it that way. What is important is saying something about where you are in your moment, your time and what is happening in your space in the world!

Is the decisive moment the image that I began these thoughts with or is it the ending one, where the only person watching is me?

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References

Cartier-Bresson, H. (1952). The decisive moment. Göttingen: Steidl.

De Retz (1717). Memoires.

Ghazzal, Z. (2004). The indecisiveness of the decisive moment. [online] Zouhairghazzal.com. Available at: http://zouhairghazzal.com/photos/aleppo/cartier-bresson.htm [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Horst, J. (2011). Dregs.

Kennedy, R. (1974). Times to remember. New York: Doubleday.

O’Byrne, R. (2001). H. Cartier-Bresson: l’amour tout court. [online] Vimeo. Available at: https://vimeo.com/106009378 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

O’Hagan, S. (2014). Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back -but his Decisive Moment has passed. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography [Accessed 4 Aug. 2017].

Oxford Dictionaries | English. (2017). [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/decisive [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Pantall, C. (2012). photo-eye Book Reviews: The Present. [online] Blog.photoeye.com. Available at: http://blog.photoeye.com/2012/05/photo-eye-book-reviews-present.html [Accessed 5 Aug. 2017].

Pink Floyd (1973). Time (The Dark Side of the Moon). Harvest Records.

Schneideman, A. (2017). Thinking Photography. Black and White, (February), pp.62-65.

Suler, J. (2017). Photographic Psychology: The Decisive Moment. [online] Truecenterpublishing.com. Available at: http://truecenterpublishing.com/photopsy/decisive_moment.htm [Accessed 4 Aug. 2017].

 

L’amore de court – Just plain love

A documentary about Henri Cartier-Bresson, made in 2001 when he was 93.

I watched this documentary twice, taking extensive notes (which I will append as PDF’s). The film switches between Cartier-Bresson talking about his thoughts on photography and the thoughts of other creative people talking about their fields, painting, film and music. There is an implied comparison between these different art forms and photography together with suggestions about how they are similar. It is clear throughout the documentary that both the film makers and the other creative people talking had a great affection for Cartier-Bresson and that he has maintained a mischievous nature. He clearly had a wonderful sense of humour which comes over in his photography and also in his conversation with others. All quotes are from the documentary (O’Byrne,2001).

Cartier-Bresson’s main themes are ‘what is important is to look’ and ‘we live in a privileged world’ and therefore that you should make use of that privileged position to show what is important and truthful in life. He talks about luck ‘It’s always luck, nothing else. When you want it, you won’t get it’ and about his feeling that the most important part of a good image is form ‘the basis is geometry …. Intuitively I know where it falls.’

There is a fascinating section by the photographer Klavdij Sluban which shows taking disposable cameras into a prison from youths, talking to them about the basis of composition and then letting them take their own images. There is a marked contrast between the professional and emotive film showing the young men, focusing on small details of their lives such as the food hatch and the images taken on the cheap cameras which shows what the prisoners themselves found important, mainly images of each other, often in groups and often unposed, all the more evocative of their actual lives.

Yvette Bonney says about Cartier-Bresson ‘when others are distracted and unobservant, Henri is on the lookout, ready to react, not even needing to stop’. In contrast, Cartier-Bresson talks about the need for concentration and how, when talking portraits ‘I talk nonsense because people expect you to say something …. I don’t listen to myself, I observe’.

Arihka (a painter) says ‘you have to perceive, not recognise’ and ‘it’s like the sand rearranged by the wind …. You need the wind, in other words, inspiration …. a sensual thing’, and Paolo Beschi (a cellist) says ‘when I start something is released …. like a camera shutter…. something unique is created ‘.

 Parts of the film were poignant, parts funny and all fascinating. A scene of driving though a tunnel to the light reminded me of the theatre images by Sugimoto, but with an intense sense of motion rather than the stillness Sugimoto imparts. It reminded me that all senses are linked, and that although in photography we are mainly using our eyes and looking, an image can also invoke the memory of sound, feeling and the gestalt of a place or a person. A good image needs love.

Reference

O’Byrne, R. (2001). H. Cartier-Bresson: l’amour tout court. [online] Vimeo. Available at: https://vimeo.com/106009378 [Accessed 24 Jul. 2017].

 

Exercise 3.2

Using a method inspired by the example above record a trace of movement within the frame.

I found this exercise both interesting and frustrating. After reading about it I remembered some images of fairground rides I had taken some years ago using a slow shutter speed to show movement and had planned to repeat the exercise and see what happened. Unfortunately, despite it being summer, and visiting a number of events I did not find any fairground attractions. I have three of the original images below to show the effect I was after. The intensity of colour and the movement blur really emphasised the excitement of the fair.

The nearest I got to repeating it was the image of the big wheel below, but it wasn’t really moving fast enough to show a good blur. This would have been more successful if I had been able to take the image at night with blurred lights. This was taken at a shutter speed of 1/8th sec handheld, and even then was very overexposed and had to be significantly modified in Lightroom. A much longer exposure might have worked with the aid of a tripod.

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Another image type I have played with in the past is night shots, either using a long exposure time and relying on the movement of vehicle to give trails of light or by moving the camera and thus causing the light trails artificially. I thought about replicating these but decided to just show some of the original images to give the idea.

I then decided to try to show the rush and thrust of a busy place, using a slow speed to emphasise the movement of the people. I experimented with this on Princes Street in Edinburgh at about lunchtime and also in Waverly Station.

I liked these images as I feel they give an idea of the pushing and hurry of trying to cross a street. Interestingly I found that I was automatically trying to follow the people while they were moving and had several images where the people were sharp but the background blurred, which was not the image I was aiming for.  I really need to go back with a tripod and try and retake these, although it will be difficult to find somewhere to set up a tripod where I can both see the crossing and not be knocked over by the rush of people. These 2 images were taken at 1/15 sec at f/22.

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This was taken in Waverly Station, again shows the busyness of the place, but I liked the effect of the woman running, presumably she was risking missing her train, and felt that this image told a strong story. This was taken at 1/20 sec at f/20.

I also experimented with images where the shutter speed was quite fast but I was moving rapidly, in this case on a train, looking out of the window. The initial images were not successful as they tending to show the dirty window rather than the view. Images just looking outside gave a good movement blur – but could have been taken anywhere, or looked as if I was not holding the camera still. The more distant part of the image below does retain relative clarity compared with the actual station, so could be worth experimenting further.

I then used my son, who was almost asleep with his head on the window, and focused on him. This gave an interesting contrast of the in-focus person inside the train compared with the intense sense of movement outside the train and I felt was the most successful of this series of images. Taken at 1/30 sec at f/5.6 the blur will have been exaggerated as I was focusing on the nearer person.

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Learning Points:

  • Movement can be shown in a multiplicity of ways
  •  Just because it’s a single image time doesn’t have to be static
  • Think about the story you are trying to tell

A Durational Space

Capa, Sugimoto and Woodman

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Robert Capa’s image of a soldier in the Normandy landings is gritty and full of movement blur but is shows a man in a desperate hurry, at risk if life. It also focuses the attention on his face and the determination shown by him. Other images, while fascinating and often actually giving more information about the event, such as this one, do not have the immediacy or drive shown in the most well-known image.

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Images courtesy of Magnum Photos.

It is difficult to know whether this movement blur was deliberate, done as an accident or simply occurred in the processing, whichever one, it is very effective.

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a Japanese photographer who has experimented extensively with the use of time in his photography. He tends to work producing series of images. He says “the vision comes first……imagine the way I photograph the things…… bringing my camera into a movie theatre……I opened my shutter when the movie begins…… I leave my camera open……when the ending credit shows up I close my shutter…… the interior of the theatre shows in the white light coming out of the screen.     ……the people were in the theatre but they all disappeared…… the movie theatre…… holds the emptiness” (Sugimoto, 2009). The images are eerie and beautiful with the cinema walls illuminated by the light from the screen.

 Sugimoto has also taken a series of images concentrating on light. He found that when he was processing photographs he was plagued with random bouts of static which he calls ‘the demons in the darkroom’ (Sugimoto, 2011). He went on to deliberately generate static electricity and shoot the resultant flashes of light, man-made lightning. He then printed these images at an enormous size to form an exhibition which I was lucky enough to see in Edinburgh several years ago. The images are sharp white on a deep, velvety black, simple in appearance but they draw the eye in and you find yourself following the path of the discharge around the image.

Michael Wesely takes the concept of long duration photography to an extreme, photographing buildings being renovated, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with the camera running for months or still life images of flowers slowly dying. The pictures of the buildings show layers and layers of lines as there is slow progress, they look somewhat like a pen and ink drawing of an artist’s conception of the building, but they appear more ‘real’ and obviously they are. Some of the images can be viewed at:

http://www.graphicine.com/unusually-long-exposure-photographs-by-michael-wesely/ (accessed 24/06/17)

http://itchyi.squarespace.com/thelatest/2010/7/20/the-longest-photographic-exposures-in-history.html (accessed 24/06/17).

Wesely says “”the lines in the sky put our existence, us, our planet into context with the Dance of the Universe, which coexists on an entirely different time scale [from us] …. The moment is fading, all that remains is the permanent overlapping of movements of all kinds, political or personal. The technologies of our times fuel this fire of restless ‘Online-Existence’. One day computers won’t have an on- or off-button anymore. We will always be online.” (Klenke, 2010).

A fascinating variant on this is when he takes long exposure, 5 minutes, images of people In the Museum of Modern Art, New York, looking at the even longer exposure images of the renovation works of the actual building. The people are visible, but look like ghosts.Other images are in colour, some are surprisingly delicate, others, mainly the flowers from ‘Stilleben’ are intensely coloured, almost violent, shocking given that they are showing the death of the flower..

 In the introduction to a recent book, Time Works, Harten describe these as ‘decidedly distinct traces of specific processes …… take on the form of a delicate, diaphanous mist …… like transparent gossamer made up of innumerable moments’ and also ‘what we experience in Michael Wesely’s photographs is the …… transitory visibility of the long since invisible’. (Wesely and Harten, 2010).This is the complete antithesis of the ‘decisive moment’. The images may appear dreamlike, often abstract, but are actually the opposite, time rules as absolute. Time held still.

An alternative view of time is used in the film Chungking Express where the opening scene uses a blurred movement to catch the attention of the viewer. This gives a sense of urgency to the film, and has drawn me in enough that I will watch the rest. The colours are intense, it is difficult at times to make out what you are seeing, and the scene feels immensely pressured, the opposite of the sense stillness captured by Wesely.

Francesca Woodman’s (1958-81) images are highly charged and often, but not always, personal.  Berger defines art as either private or public, but her work spans both, ‘intensely private photographs for public consumption……Woodman regularly appeared naked within the frame, her body contorted, her flesh blurred—at once visible and intangible. Each image feels viscerally revealing of something, or someone, beyond the frame—something public photographs can’t do.’ (Christoph, 2015). Her suicide, age 22, inevitably alters people’s perception of her work, partly by the simple fact that there is a limited oeuvre, not all of which has ever been published, but also because there is a temptation to read everything she has done in that context, rather than as early work of a woman who might, given the time, have gone on in a totally different direction.

Much of her work is monochrome, with stark tonal contrasts, showing images that are partially blurred, a jumping person in apparently derelict room ‘Untitled, Rome, 1977-78’, or showing only part of the person ‘Seven Cloudy Days, Rome 1977-78’. Other images use wildly contrasting juxtapositions of people and items such as in the Eel series, where a blurred person lies next to the sharply focused bowl of eels.

Badger says ‘she clearly sought to escape the strictures of the single image and still, frozen photographic stasis. And in her off-kilter compositions and constant roulades of wispy, swirling flight, she appears to hammer at the boundaries of the photographic frame itself’ and ‘Woodman’s oeuvre seems to have informed by the apparently inconsolable thought (for her) that society’s cards are irrevocably stacked against her sex. That no matter how hard she might try to escape constriction by gender, only in her art could she be free,’. (Badger, 2017. I wonder whether, if she had been working now, her work would have been less ‘constricted’ in this way bur equally how her view has led the way for the wide variety of female photographers today, many of whom take images of women and also how it feeds into the ongoing discussion about whether (or not) females perceive other females differently from male photographers and therefore make images that are fundamentally different. (Jansen, 2017).

In the context of thinking about the impact of blur on the emotional reading of the image it is clear that in Woodman’s work it is crucially important, in a similar way (although in a very different setting) to the Capa image on Normandy Beach. I find her images often disturbing, often beautiful, at times mesmerising and I am left wondering what she might have produced in an unknown future. She was born just after me, into a very different life, but I am unsure if I would have ever understood her and her thought processes.

References

Badger, G. (2017). Gerry Badger  Francesca Woodman. [online] Gerrybadger.com. Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/francesca-woodman/ [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

Christoph, S. (2015). FRANCESCA WOODMAN. [online] Brooklynrail.org. Available at: http://brooklynrail.org/2015/03/artseen/francesca-woodman-mar15 [Accessed 30 Jun. 2017].

JANSEN, C. (2017). GIRL ON GIRL. [S.l.]: LAURENCE KING PUBLISHING.

Klenke, S. (2010). The Longest Photographic Exposures in History – The Latest – itchy i. [online] Itchyi.squarespace.com. Available at: http://itchyi.squarespace.com/thelatest/2010/7/20/the-longest-photographic-exposures-in-history.html [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Pro.magnumphotos.com. (2017). Magnum Photos. [online] Available at: http://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Sugimoto, H. (2009). Contacts vol 2: Hiroshi Sugimoto. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mcbEgEv2kUw [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Sugimoto, H. (2011). Hiroshi Sugimoto, Nature of light ; [Izu Photo Museum, Shizuoka, Japan ; October 26, 2009 – March 16, 2010]. Shizuoka, Japan: Izu Photo Museum.

Townsend, C. and Woodman, G. (2016). Francesca Woodman. London: Phaidon.

Wax, R. (2014). Unusually Long Exposure Photographs by Michael Wesely | Graphicine. [online] Graphicine.com. Available at: http://www.graphicine.com/unusually-long-exposure-photographs-by-michael-wesely/ [Accessed 24 Jun. 2017].

Wesely, M. and Harten, J. (2010). Time works. Munchen: Schirmer/Mosel.

 

 

 

 

Exercise 3.1

Brief: Using fast shutter speeds isolate a frozen moment in time.

When I thought about this exercise I came up with several options such as capturing an animals’ movement e.g. a dog in mid leap or a bird in flight.

Leaping Dog

I then thought further and decided to have my own go at emulating the ‘milk drop’ photographs. I found this technically quite challenging. I set the camera to 1/8000 sec, and focused on the surface of water in a bowl. Initially I left the camera to set the aperture, which came out with the largest possible, but I found this cut down the depth of field too much so was not getting the images I was visualising, so changed to a fully manual mode with an aperture of f/9. I used my flash and a tripod to hold the image position stable. My assistant (my son) then slowly dipped water into a bowl while I tried to capture it landing. We had many failed attempts:

  • I mistimed the shot so just caught a ripple or just water
  • Using a white bowl was not very successful, as there was too much reflection from the flash and many of the images were burnt out completely
  • My flash takes longer than I realised to recharge, and needed to be watched to avoid a completely underexposed (black) frame.
  • There was reflection from a nearby window, so we had to move to a different room where I could cover the window

Eventually I got some images I was happy with. I have added contact sheets of a number of the images, marked with the ‘picks’, ‘top choices’ and the final preferred image.

The final image that I chose was:

Frozen Moment

I felt the colours and pattern were interesting. I am aware that the higher drop is not totally sharp but felt it leads the eye to the drop that is just about to land. This was a fascinating exercise to carry out.