Category Archives: Notes

General rough notes.

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 It cements an idea of photography that is no longer current but continues to exist as an unquestioned yardstick in the public eye: black and white, acutely observational, meticulously composed, charming.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

untitled-20

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].

 

Thoughts for July

I have been following, with some bemusement, several posts both on the OCA EYV mail thread and on the OCA year 1 Facebook page. There seems to be a small number of very vocal people who are clearly dissatisfied with the thoughts behind the course and the marking system. The problems could be summarised as:

  • I don’t feel I get enough support
  • I don’t like being told what to do
  • I don’t like the type of photography we are being asked to look at – too artsy, not beautiful, too much meaning, not enough meaning!
  • I’m not learning how to make better (read prettier) pictures
  • It’s too hard
  • It’s too much theory

Some of the above are obviously mutually contradictory.

I am not in the above camp – but I do wonder how much these vocal people reflect the general perceptions of a distance learning environment and some of the inevitable difficulties that occur. I have had the dubious advantage of working in a profession where I have always had to do a lot of self-directed study to keep up with any new developments, and was aware how hard this can be before starting the course. I am also studying for personal interest, that’s not to say that a long-term goal of making images that are good enough to attract attention and maybe even sell is out of the question!

I also am very aware that I actually signed up to do an Arts degree (and hope to be able to finish it). In any degree course there is bound to be a lot of ‘theoretical’ work, both reading and writing, and you are going to come across a range of works, some of which you will like and some of which you may hate or despise. I also think that it is likely that my tastes and specific interests will change as I see more different images and also as I read more about the thoughts and aspirations of the individual photographers. Certainly, I have already come across several artists that I would never have found before, and at least one that, on initial viewing, I could not see any value in, but whom I now really appreciate, and go back to.

I admit I am struggling to find enough time to do as much as I would like to. This is partly because I keep getting distracted and would spend an untenable amount of time following side paths, which, while fascinating, does detract from time available from doing the actual course work.

I also keep changing my mind about how to approach some of the assignments. I would probably find a little more hands on guidance or discussion helpful here, and should probably benefit from attending the study days when they are near enough or joining a local (ish) study group. Maybe a way forward would be to get up courage to post some of my images on the appropriate thread on the OCA website to ask for comments.

The issue about tutor support is a significant one. The tutor I have for EYV has not had any contact with me other than responding after my assignments, however that response has been extensive and very helpful, commenting on both my photography and my research, with several suggestions about how to take it further and appropriate links. Interestingly he has given some diametrically opposite advice from the tutor I had some years ago for TAOP. My previous tutor directed that every image should be labelled with all the image data, this one said not, commenting that you would only look at this if the photograph was intrinsically boring! (Although it can be interesting to know how someone else has reached the effect they have achieved).

Over the last month I have done a fairly large amount of personal photography that doesn’t directly feed into the course requirements. We have been away on holiday on a tour of Northern England and been to several events to do with the Romans and also to a very large military re-enactment. I have been able to use some of the confidence I developed in taking portraits for assignment 2 to good use here, and have, I think, made more interesting images of these events than I would have previously.

I have also made a small photobook for our wedding anniversary using 3 inch square close-up monochrome images of ears, fingers etc, which I would probably not thought of doing before the course. This is something I may well develop for future work and have wondered about using for the final assignment, my initial plan had to do some images around the environmental impact of the forestry commission and logging in Scotland.

So this is where I am at the moment. Trying not to get too diverted. Considering what to take forward. Generally happy that I am slowly improving.

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].

 

Feedback on Assignment 2

Some thoughts and comments.

Blue text is my tutor’s comments, black my replies.

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

I like that you used your dog as a ‘hook’ to get the subjects to ‘sit’ for you. Everyone has their own method and this is obviously working for you.

The pictures themselves raised a couple of questions. Please remember there aren’t right or wrong answers to these, they are intended to prompt your thinking about your own work. They could form the basis of some useful learning log posts. o Why black and white? You state: “I decided to use a monochrome conversion for the final images as this bought a coherence to the series and evened out the variable backgrounds and lighting conditions.” In what way does black and white bring coherence? What does black and white do that colour might struggle with? What does it not do?

When I looked at the series of images they were very variable in lighting condition as all shot outside. I felt the colour images gave more prominence to the surroundings rather than the face itself, while the monochrome allowed the focus to be on the details of the person. There were also some distracting pieces of colour that I had not managed to avoid in the background as the people were shot were they stood and I did not ask them to move to a potentially better location. However, colour might have emphasised the skin tones of the people or helped to identify their ages.

All of your subjects are smiling and the pictures have the feel of a relaxed but professional portrait shoot. What do the portraits say about these ‘heads’ when shown as a series? Do the smiles affect how the work is viewed as a typology?

The ‘heads’ show a generally happy and content group of people who were prepared to have a ‘bit of fun’ while being photographed by a stranger. They were all taken while out on a walk in a park, so presumably in a relaxed moment. This gives a positive image – but if taken on another day, or in another place, these same people might be more subdued. I did show the images to the people and they were all pleased with how they looked! The smiles portray Scots as a positive group of people – not how they are usually perceived.

How did your choice of focal length and distance to subject affect how your sitter is portrayed? Related to this, how does camera position affect how we as viewers regard the sitter? Traditionally men and women were photographed differently in head shots, women looking up for a more flattering pose and men looking down to reflect power. What do your pictures do to challenge or support these stereotypes.

The images were all taken with me fairly close to the person, and often while I continued to chat to them, this did mean that they were all aware of the photo, no unexpected moments or expressions, therefore no surprises or glimpses of deep contemplation. I tried to take the images at a level with the person to get a feeling of equality. I had not considered differentiating between the pose of men and women, possibly this is showing that the previous stereotypes are less prevalent than in the past. I was not attempting to show power or beauty, but just the person as a person, with no emphasis on gender.

One thing I should point out is your captions. To be blunt, no one cares what camera settings you used. What they will care about though is something about your subjects. Their name perhaps, and where/when the portrait was made. Imagine you walk into a museum in 50 years and you see your portraits hanging on display. Are you interested in what camera settings were used or do you want to engage with the work and find out more about the people photographed? I’ve found a good test for whether pictures are working or not is to ask this question. If technical information is your first stop then the pictures are probably boring. If you want to learn more about the subjects and don’t care about technical considerations then the photographer has succeeded.

This is a very fair point. I only captioned the photos with camera settings because when I was doing TAOP some years ago this is what my tutor at that time wanted me to do. I would never look at technical information unless I was curious about how an image was achieved, and the image would have had to catch my attention first.

Overall I was pleased with the feedback and found it helpful. It has made me think harder about the ‘why’s’ of the images rather than the ‘how’.

Reflection

Where I am now.

Self-Check Against Assignment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • These seem to be improving
  • Need to think more before I press the shutter
  • Check for background as well as foreground

Quality of Outcome:

  • Needs more work
  • Think about what I am trying to show
  • Learning log needs to be detailed but also usable and concise
  • Structure of learning log is Ok I think

Demonstration of Creativity:

  • This is where I struggle
  • Tendency to shoot the same type of image all the time
  • Need to think about outcome more, and what I am trying to achieve (see post Future thought here)

Context:

  • This I am really enjoying
  • Tendency to get side-tracked onto other thought
  • Risk of spending whole time on this aspect of course!
  • Finding language of an arts subject difficult, mainly due to usually having to be very factual at work
  • Need to be prepared to put personal opinion down on paper and defend it

Thoughts for the Future

What is coming though clearly in the reading I am doing and the photographers I have looked at is that they have more than just an interest in their subject matter, they have a passion. I assume that for some of them their ‘work’, if they are acting as a commercial photographer may not always be in their passionate zone, but their private work, what they put their heart into is. It’s the passion that fuels the drive to go and take photographs, and then to find creative ways to explore it and show it to others.

Examples would be:

  • The environment – Burtynsky
  • War – McCallum
  • People – McCurry
  • Myth and magic – Aase Goldsmith

So – the over-riding question is – what am I passionate about?

It is people and their lives and motives, especially in the field of autism.

What do I almost never photograph – people, why?

I take endless images of plants (OK, I am interested in them, but not passionate), buildings and architecture, (again a somewhat bland interest – probably explaining the somewhat bland photos) and landscapes. The only people I photograph are family (when they let me) and musicians at concerts.

The overarching aim for this work needs to be how to get from where I am to where I want to be.

Things needed

  • Technical skills
  • Confidence to approach people
  • Access
  • Ideas about how to show the strain of living without pathos, doesn’t mean without despair, but in a way that means something.

Present problems

  • How to gain access – I have a problem in that my work with the health board could compromise access, I might have a major disciplinary action if I was seen to be using this for my own ends!

Plan 2 – May Update

  1. Work my way though course handbook, looking at each exercise and expanding as required. Importance high as I want to complete the course in a timely fashion. On time (just).
  2. Personal projects – present ideas
    1. People in the park: looking at people as they walk around, interacting with others, their dogs, phones etc.
      1. Initially looking at more distant shots, maybe using tele lens
      2. Close-ups! Started as in assignment 2
    2. Tree ‘Art’: following up on my interest in nature looking at and contrasting the natural bark /growth patterns of trees with the, often childish or rude, graffiti carved into them.
    3. Intimacy: close-up work
      1. Contrast people, or rather small images of them with detail of possibly buildings, or? plants
      2. People interacting with each other
    4. The logging industry in Scotland – thinking about this as a possible final piece for EYV.
  3. Looking at photographers work in detail – present possibilities but this list could go on forever.
    1. Dayanita Singh
    2. John MacLean
    3. Keith Arnatt
    4. Walker Evans Done –At least initially
    5. Burtynsky
    6. Graham MacIndoe – Investigated
    7. Diane Arbus
  4. Reading – again the list could go on forever
    1. Photography as contemporary art – Charlotte Cotton read
    2. The Genius of Photography – Gary Badger – started (and TV series found)
    3. Letting go of the Camera – Brooke Jensen – started
  5. Attend as many exhibitions, both of photography and general art as possible.

This list is much too ambitious, but it gives me a starting point.

To be reviewed monthly to keep a check on progress.