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 It cements an idea of photography that is no longer current but continues to exist as an unquestioned yardstick in the public eye: black and white, acutely observational, meticulously composed, charming.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?
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].