The decisive moment

3178 words (13 pages) Essay

27th Feb 2017 Photography Reference this


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This essay will look at the foundation, importance, and relevance of the decisive moment. It will evaluate how this notion is perceived in today’s society and evaluate how technology has affected it throughout the years and if it became less recognisable and less consciously considered. The idea of the decisive moment was established by Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908– August 3, 2004) and quickly became the leading theory; soon basis of photography for centuries.

In order to fully understand the decisive moment, it is highly important to recognise its origin and certain ideologies behind it. The idea was officially introduced and named by Cartier-Bresson in his book under the same title in 1952; the decisive moment was and still is considered to appear when both artistic and the meaningful aspects of life come together for a split second and can be then captured and documented through – in this case – the lens of the camera. The decisive moment photograph never exists as a singular image. Such image can only emerge as a part of an entire photo shoot. Not even the greatest photographers are capable of capturing a remarkable image with just a single frame. Cartier-Bresson’s theory, the decisive moment soon became known, much respected and used by all professional photographers; not much later being considered as a beginning of street and photojournalism style of photography.

In his book Cartier-Bresson talks about his idea of the decisive moment- what later became known as photojournalism; he states ‘I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image… in order to give meaning to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames in the viewfinder… its putting one’s head, one’s eye, one’s heart on the same axis… it is a way of life’. The above quote proves that the decisive moment itself was more than just an idea. It was a way of thinking, living and a style of work, obeyed not just by lifelong commitment of Henri Cartier-Bresson himself but many if not all professional photographers to follow. He believed in the unique purpose of photography in comparison to other visual arts such as painting. This therefore that photography has a unique capability to capture momentary and constant flow of life e.g. vide diversions within different cultures (he created series of photographs in countries such as India, France and Russia), political and economic changes. For example he was drawn to India by the significant political events – which then lead to major economic and cultural changes – such as the Partition and assassination of Ghandi. Both of these events had a vast impact on the culture of India, the Partition for example lead to high independence of culture within the countries created. It also however raised the amount of violence which resulted in high expanse in deaths within the civilians and war between the countries. Cartier-Bresson believed that his photographs were a method of assessing the present against the past, that they allowed him to compare the country with what it once was, helped him and the viewer to realise and appreciate all of the things that remained the same and continued throughout the years as much as convey all that has changed through time.

It is important to note that Cartier-Bresson’s ideologies therefore his art work, have a clear link to his education and reveal a strong philosophical knowledge. This is visibly observable when being aware of his early life and edification through school. As a young artist he attended the Lhote Academy in Paris in which painter and sculptor Andre Lhote, took on the method to teach his students to integrate the cubist’s approach to reality (depiction of space, mass, time and volume as well as the use of multiple perspective) with classical artistic forms such as beautiful, almost perfect sceneries and people, along with the most truthful representation of reality, scale and perspective. Cubism was a first abstract art movement, which abandoned the tradition of perspective, displaying many views at the same time while preserving the expressiveness of subjects granted with philosophical connotations. The art work of this movement displayed a very geometrical presence and subjects of the painting were often tough to spot with just a brief first glance. The paintings were often chaotic in a sense of composition yet were exceptionally intriguing and very easy to look at for a substantial period of time. They required the viewer to see it with an open mind, ready to interpret and thoughtfully consider the subject while classical art only just offered something pretty to look at.

While at the Lhote Academy, Cartier-Bresson developed an interest into human psychology and studied all leading philosophers such as Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schopenhauer and Karl Heinrich Marx. The theory of the decisive moment itself reveals a very high understanding and influence of such philosophical knowledge, and it is enough to look at the very basic yet complex principles of an effective the decisive moment to see a clear link. Further studies of Cartier-Bresson’s theory reveal that a successful the decisive moment in photography is not by any means accidental but it is a careful combination ‘of a unique set of technical, cognitive, and emotional skills’. All of these can only be achieved by far reaching training therefore a vast amount of experience, and psychological knowledge of people. Both the emotional and the so clear psychological significance of this theory are based on the ‘dynamic interaction of the experiences of subject and photographer… which provides the springboard for effective insight’. All of these factors play an essential role in the composition of the decisive moment. A well composed photograph within this theory creates a feeling of understanding, balance, harmony, interest, unity and closure. Although, however considerate and successful the decisive moment theory is, it only applies to street and photojournalism photography. So as important and influential as it is, it did not help to form or develop other styles of photography.

The geometrical and beautiful aspects of art, combined with psychological knowledge are represented in almost all of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs; such as the photograph of two women taken in 1953 (figure 1) and the image of a mother holding her baby taken in 1950 in India (figure 2). The first image uses repeated vertical lines to emphasise the subjects within the frame which s this case are the two women. In the second image there is a clockwise design of thin lines which immediately move the viewer’s eye around the frame. Both of these images show a clear and careful consideration of geometry and designed viewer’s response by the photographer.

In an article on photographic psychology; John Suler PhD professor of Rider University described the decisive moment as a ‘highly debated concept’. Throughout the years, Cartier-Bresson’s theory has been discussed from various angles and perspectives. Many of the arguments are objectively recent and mainly refer to the growing technological advance. Now that the decisive moment is fully understood in all its aspects, both the supportive arguments as well as those against the theory will be considered and analysed.

Some could argue that although Cartier-Bresson was the first one to name the decisive moment, he has basically described a way photographers worked from a very beginning. The term photography is derived from the Greek phos graphe which means drawing with light. Photography was and still is considered to be both the art and science. It is a way of creating resilient images, which has been present for almost two centuries. Recently however the scientific aspect of it seems to have disappeared giving way to more of an artistic approach. Todays photographers have all become artists’and have disregarded the theoretical approach to photography. However in the early 1900’s, while photography was still developing, photographers remained scientists capturing and observing various aspects of life. The first camera was more about capability to capture anything permanently form a different angle (through the lens for example), and the general achievement of a photograph itself. Looking at some of the early photographs now, it is clear that somewhat unconsciously the photographer picked the moment or the final chosen frame for a reason. Like the train track photograph, the photographer picked a certain weather and time of the day because it meant something to him. Find the image

The opposite side of this argument could be the early equipment. Images created back in the 1800’s or even during the 1900’s required extremely long exposures. What could now be classed as the decisive moment in these images could have happened by pure chance and luck; for example in the first ever photograph taken of a person (figure 4). The only reason for why this was able to happen is that the person so far away on the street, remained motionless enough for the camera to record it. This was not the moment consciously considered and chosen by the photographer, it was just a frame chosen out the whole photo shoot. Now this is when this side of the argument becomes inconsistent, as the image was still chosen due to its certain properties and content. The same properties later listed and described by Cartier-Bresson as the decisive moment.

In his article John Suler, mentions the fact that some modern photographers rejecting the decisive moment as an ‘outdated idea’. This conveys the most discussed contemporary aspect of Cartier-Bresson’s idea – the technology. Photographers in today’s society do not think about the decisive moment anymore, they simply do not have to. New equipment such as cameras are easily capable of capturing enormous amounts of images in incredibly short periods of time. Without the concern, neither the cost nor the necessity to change, acquire new film roll or even then the requirement to develop the shots. Photographers either professional or amateur are able to pick the decisive moment afterwards rather then consider it just before the shot or while taking the photo. In the book on Conceptual Limitations of Our Reflection on Photography, Jan Baetens argues that there is a fundamental disjunction between the practical knowledge of the non-academics and contemporary (artistic) photographic theory. Photography in today’s society became greatly more accessible on considerably bigger scale and now it’s not just professional photographers capturing the flow of life but everyone is capable of doing so. In another article on the decisive moment, John Roberts vey accordingly states that ‘there has been an intellectual regression within photography… the social implications and possibilities of new imaging techniques in various sciences rarely move from the realm of specialist technical discourse into the broader field of critical theories of photography’. In today’s society photography is easier to use, mainly due to the technology and requires much less training and general knowledge of the equipment, techniques and composition therefore smaller amount of people taking photos are truly aware of the decisive moment and theoretical approach to photography. Although the technology now rejects the idea and recognition of the decisive moment, mainly due to high growing technological improvement, some could argue that it was Bresson’s idea which pushed the development of photographical technology so fast forward. His idea of perfection within the frame and the “perfect” image actually has in some respect motored the society and technology to advance. (One more sentence needed but don’t know what!!)

Many contemporary arguments disprove and dismiss the theory of the decisive moment. There is however a clear link between the theory and human psychology, which highly supports Cartier-Bresson’s idea and vice versa. Suler’s article speaks very little on the actual theory itself, as its main focus remains on the use of photography in psychoanalytic therapy. The concept of Cartier-Bresson’s theory plotted into authentic psychiatry is very intriguing as it now links back with its original establishment. An idea based on basic human psychology is now being used to analyse one’s mind. Although psychoanalysis in this case is not much of an arguable point, it does shine a new light on the original idea and displays it in a slightly different perspective.

In 1956 E. Kris introduced the idea of the “Good Hour. To understand the relation this has towards Cartier-Bresson’s idea it is important to understand the term and its importance towards creative arts. Kris describes the Good Hour as a process an individual goes through while undertaking one’s goal. The good hour begins with a negative implication; a feeling of frustration and disappointment. Next step within this process is that all the negative feelings are then neutralised and converted into dynamic energy which impulses the individual’s mind towards personally meaningful perceptions. The Good Hour, in which the individual is powerful and independent in the pursuit for meaning, varies from the “Pseudo Good Hour” during which an individual is driven by an aim to please someone or gain approval.

This idea of the Good Hour resonates the one of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment and both photographic and psychological elements emerging as one. He moreover compared photography to the psychoanalytic basis; while Kris trusted the psychological progression throughout the Good Hour bring to mind those during artistic accomplishments. Both the factual events being photographed and the personal interpretation of ‘the decisive moment shot are the therapeutic “Aha!” moment’, a moment of recognising oneself within the human existence. Both the Good Hour and the decisive moment are not about achieving the goal (the decisive moment shot) to please someone but about oneself in the world of human experiences and subconsciously designed awareness lying in awaiting the opportunity to express oneself through in this case photography.

As much as the idea worked in practise with Cartier-Bresson, which in a lot of respect is due to his extraordinary and exceptional knowledge and understanding of human psychology, it doesn’t necessary mean it has to work for someone who’s knowledge only consist of basic photographic skills, someone who was never absorbed by anything else but photography itself. How would one know what is the right decisive moment? All of our interpretations of imagery and stories are strongly based on our cultural capital. Cartier-Bresson’s theory comes into doubt when tested by the mass and today’s fast spread of media such as photography. The decisive moment (as mentioned before) consists of a collapse of both what is beautiful and what is significant to the individual capturing the image. However, human understanding and interpretation of both them factors, commences and cultivates based on one’s personal experiences, culture and society one was raised within and various values one was taught throughout life. In the theoretical approach toward the cultural capital, Pierre Bourdieu states that ‘individualscan be restricted by their habitus’. This statement is highly relevant within this argument as it supports the idea of that what is considered as the decisive moment by the photographer may be perceived as the most far away point from it by the viewer.

It is evident that Cartier-Bresson was fully aware of the effects his work had on people, he says ‘It is by means of form, by careful plastic organization, that our thoughts and emotion become communicable’ His photographs are so well composed they instantly become highly artistic, yet at the same time, they are such strong journalistic medium with even more powerful message behind it. Cartier-Bresson’s work created art which became an expression of common humanity, it became an expression of ordinary, day to day people; revealing their tragic stories. All of this became possible due to careful consideration of both beauty and meaning thereof the decisive moment. Although such complex idea may be challenging to understand in today’s society, inflexible and overwhelmed by the technology, it has undoubtedly marked its importance in history of photography. As much as it may not be consciously considered when taking the photograph, our “perfect” image is still chosen according to the same principles. Consciously or not, the theory of the decisive moment is still used in practice by both the professionals and the general public. If it was not for this theory the field of photography and its equipment would not be as far developed as it currently is.

Jan Baetens argues (‘Conceptual Limitations of Our Reflection on Photography: The Question of Interdisciplinarity’, pp. 53–73.), there is a fundamental disjunction between the ‘practical knowledge of the … nonacademics’ (p. 61) and contemporary (artistic) photographic theory.


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CLM 2045M, Sara Zimna, 12299092

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